A Meditation for the Easter Vigil

Genesis: 22:1-18 The ‘sacrifice of Isaac’. We have to put aside all our modern notions to get under the skin of this story, which has a long history and many implications. Just think for a moment how significant Isaac was; the son in their old age given to the previously barren Sara and the legitimate son of Abraham. He was their posterity, the guarantee that Abraham’s blood line would go down through the ages. Remember, these people had no sense of eternal life with God after death. A son, bearing your own name and your blood was essential in the ancient world. Abraham, a devout Jew by this time was asked to give-over to God everything he valued most in the world – his only son. We see that in obedience to God he was willing to do this terrible thing, this thing incomprehensible to us. Yet, in the Books of the Kings we do hear of early kings who sacrificed their sons under the foundations of their cities, Jericho, in particular; a sign and symbol of their devotion to the gods. Israel also made sacrifice of every first-born animal to God and substituted animal sacrifices for the births of their sons, as we see in the sacrifice of pigeons by the parents of Jesus. Clearly then, the story of Abraham’s testing and willingness to hand-over Isaac marks this transition from old ways to new. Within this blood-curdling story however we see, as the compilers of our lectionary no doubt intended, a parallel and a message.

Abraham represents faithful Israel; Israel which, unlike subsequent generations, with their oft repeated rebellion against God, was faithful; faithful at great personal cost, namely, the sacrifice of an only and beloved son. Abraham represents what Israel was always meant to be like, for in the ‘handing-over’ of his son Isaac, surely we see also the handing over of Abraham in his totality, in all that he is to God. Faithful in his original call to leave Ur and embark on many journeys  during which time he discovered the one true God, Abraham was faithful when it really mattered, so much so that God spared his son, replacing him with  the ram caught in the bushes by its horns. Because of his fidelity to God Abraham would be richly rewarded.

But at this point the parallel breaks down, for throughout its history Israel, and indeed, the world failed in fidelity to God. We have embarked this Holy week on a story of redemption, an epic, in which the victim is not the son of an earthly man, but God the Son, sacrificed, for the sins of the world. In this story there has been no last minute reprieve, for a much bigger story has been etched out as we have seen in the handing over of Jesus to death. There has been no happy ending, no promise made to any earthly father, only the gift to the world of the Heavenly Father who allows us to do with his Beloved Son as we will.

Gospel Matthew 28:1-10. And there we have it, the final moment, Jesus’ vindication by God. Being Matthew’s account it is heralded by lots of action – seismic activity, as the earth, ever obedient to the creator plays its part in the resurrection, just as it had at his death and a stern and dazzling angel rolls the stone from the tomb. The terrified guards, we are told, were ‘like dead men’; in great and dramatic contrast to the women followers of Jesus who have come to the tomb. Suddenly we see women, previously non-persons, and unreliable witnesses in court given their place of honour, respected, trusted and recognised by the Church. They see the angel and hear his message “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here, for he is risen, as he said he would…. He has risen from the dead and now he is going before you to Galilee; it is there you will see him.”    We are told that the women believed and ran to tell the disciples.

But it was even better, for the Lord simply could not wait to be greeted in Galilee but rushed to meet and share his joy with the women, affirming their witness and all that they represent. It is a curiously gentle and quiet scene, in vivid contrast to the crash-bangs of the angel and the unsealing of the tomb, for our risen Lord is true to his previous personality and meets his followers as beloved friends, those he wants to share his resurrected joy with.

Here then is the final handing-over of Jesus; this time, not to pain and ignominy, but in triumph. Here he defeats all the shame which marked his follower’s frightened denials and desertion and the uselessness of the female witness at the cross, for there he stands, on the road back into Jerusalem, risen to full bodily life once more, alive, happy and able to meet and communicate and as we shall see, even eat with his followers. Handed–over to death he has defeated death and now can finally and in truth give-himself over to the entire creation, its redeemer and vindicator and in his self-gift every one of us can at last be made into what God the Father always intended us to be; perfectly one with him and the Son and destined for eternal life. In the resurrection of Jesus you and I are now paradidomi, handed-over to the world in his name, we are his great victory sign.