Thursday, March 09, 2006

Hold On—But Not Too Tightly!

The Sacrifice of Isaac

(Second Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 12, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Genesis 22: 1-18; Mark 9: 2-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here:Second Sunday of Lent 2006]

Hold on—but not too tightly.

This is one of the keys to doing God’s will on this earth. It’s also one of the keys in helping others to do the will of God in their lives.

“Holding on,” in the sense that I’m using the expression in this homily, is something all of us do every day, whether we are conscious of it or not. Specifically, we hold on to other people. That is to say, we rely on them; we develop bonds of friendship and affection with them. We do that because we’re social beings. As John Donne once said, “No man is an island.” We grow up in families; we attend schools; we live in neighborhoods and communities. This is how God created us. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why his Son established a Church (a community of believers). As we’re told in the very first paragraph of the new Catechism: “[God] calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church.”

But there’s a danger that comes with “holding on” to other people in this life, and we need to be aware of it. The danger is that we will hold on to them too tightly. This happens whenever we try to control or manipulate someone for our own selfish ends—by putting them, for example, on a “guilt trip.”

Have you ever heard something like this on your voice mail or answering machine?—“Hello, Johnny, this is your mother calling. You remember me, don’t you? I’m the lady who brought you into this world (after 3 horrible days of labor, as I recall!). I’m also the one who made all those sacrifices for you for 25 years. I hope you come to see me soon. I’m so lonely, you know. I just sit around here all day and stare at these four ugly walls. And then I cry. But don’t worry about me—I know you’ve got your own life to live. Goodbye. Have a nice day.”

Have you ever heard anything like that before? That’s a perfect illustration of what it means to hold on too tightly.

Now if we’re being honest, we will admit that this is a state of mind that can affect any one of us—at least from time to time. But I would say that parents are especially vulnerable to it, simply because of their great love for their children. The thought occurred to me in preparation for this homily: There are probably priests in the world today who never should have become priests!

So why were they ordained?

Simply because in one way or another they were pressured into it by one or both of their parents! Of course, there are also men out there who were called to the priesthood by God and who should have become priests, but never did— also because of parental pressure. (The latter, I think, is far more common these days.)

By the same token, there are men and women who married the wrong person because of interference from mom and dad or some other member of the family; and there are others whose marriages have broken up because of family meddling.

Whenever we try to control or manipulate another human being—even if we do it in the name of love!—we’re holding on to them too tightly. Much too tightly.

This is also a tendency we have to battle when someone close to us passes away. As many of us know by experience, “letting go” of loved ones who have died is sometimes extremely difficult. Those of you who were blessed to have your parents for 70 or 80 years; those of you who lost your spouse after 40 or 50 years of marriage—you know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you? It was a struggle (and perhaps still is a struggle) to let go of them on an emotional level.

I knew a woman many years ago who was deeply in love with her husband. They had been married over 40 years, and they were constantly together. He suffered a massive heart attack one day at work, and died shortly thereafter. She was a woman who was in church every Sunday and sometimes even during the week, but in her grief she actually tried to take her own life a few months after her husband passed away. Without a doubt, she was holding on to him much too tightly. She needed to let go of him emotionally—even though it was extremely painful and difficult.

I mention this today because it’s exactly what Abraham had to do with respect to his son, Isaac; it’s also what Peter, James and John had to do with respect to Jesus.

In asking Abraham to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah, God was challenging him to “let go”. In effect, the Lord was saying to him, “I know how much you love this boy. He’s the child you waited 100 years to have; he’s the child through which my promises to you will be fulfilled. And I have a marvelous plan for his life. Will you, Abraham, allow me to fulfill that plan, or will you stand in the way? Your job as a parent is to love and care for your son: to instruct him in the truth; to affirm him in the good he does; and to discipline him when necessary. But you are not the Lord of his life, I am! So do not cling to him too tightly! Let go of him now, so that he will be free to do what I want him to do, and fulfill my perfect plan for his life.”

Something similar happens in the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, which we heard a few moments ago in that Gospel text from Mark 9. Remember, when this event occurred historically, Peter, James and John had been living with Jesus for 3 years. In the process, they had come to rely on his physical presence with them. And that’s completely understandable! Whenever they wanted help, guidance, or direction, all they had to do was walk up to our Lord and ask him for it. And they did. We all would have done the same thing if we had been in their shoes.

Well, within a few short weeks all that would change: Jesus would be crucified, and he would never again be with them in exactly the same way. Yes, he would always be with them spiritually and sacramentally—but that’s different than the way he was with them during the 3 years he was walking around Palestine! To prepare them for this radical change, Jesus allowed Peter, James and John to see him transfigured on Mount Tabor. His message to them was, “Remember what you’re seeing here, my friends. You have been holding on to me tightly for 3 years by relying on my physical presence with you. But within a few weeks I will be crucified, and you will be forced to let go. And yet, I will still be with you. In fact, I’ll be with you always until the end of the world. See me transfigured; see my divinity! So you will still be able to hold on to me—but you’ll have to learn to do it in a very different way.”

Eventually, thank God, they learned the lesson.

So did Abraham, with respect to Isaac. He held on to his son in love (as any good father would)—but not too tightly.

Let’s pray that in our relationships with other human beings on this earth—especially our relatives and close friends—we will do the same.