By Peter Groves
Among my weaknesses is a passion for musical theatre. This is in part a thoroughly highbrow, thoroughly Oxford passion – I can discuss Wagner till the cows come home, and I spent the money I was given for my twenty first birthday on tickets for the Ring at Covent Garden. But it’s partly a guilty secret as well, for in addition to liking Mozart and the rest, I know the works of Gilbert and Sullivan pretty much by heart, and am a sucker for what the world calls “musicals.” I recall that when I was at theological college, a gay friend looked through my CD collection, and, finding lots of Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, and the like, asked me whether I was entirely sure I was straight and whether this Beatrice person he’d met wasn’t just for show.
All this has got very little to do with this morning’s sermon, except that as I’ve been studying the readings this week the refrain running round my head has been one from the great American writer Stephen Sondheim. His masterpiece A Little Night Music, based on a film by Ingmar Bergman, is a study of suffocating hypocrisy and insecurity among the highly privileged in a world now long gone. One unhappy wife sings to a younger and more idealistic companion about the realities of marriage, with the repeated line “Every day a little death.”
“Every day a little death.” The horror of the story of Abraham and Isaac seems far removed from the gentility of Sondheim’s couples, and yet the hopelessness of what ought to be human flourishing is common to both. The failure to live the gift of life that God has given us fuels our desire for power, and for self-aggrandisement – politically, socially, sexually. The apparent tragedy of Isaac has been taken by many as the archetype of all human victimhood, and it is not surprising that this narrative of the unthinkable – the sacrifice of an only son to the arbitrary whims of the divine – has been so prominent in reflection on the horrors of the twentieth century, particularly those experienced by God’s chosen people the Jews.
“Every day a little death.” Of course, God does not actually require the death of Isaac. The whole story is an exercise in dramatic irony, introduced by the narrator with the words “God tested Abraham.” But the willingness of the father to slaughter his son is telling for all sorts of reasons. Yes, his faith and obedience are extraordinary, but what is not extraordinary, what is all too human, is his acceptance that God might require an offering of death. For human beings, death is ultimate: the ultimate suffering, and also the ultimate power. There can be nothing greater in the struggle of life than the power to take life away from another. Thus it is hardly surprising that when we construct our own halting attempts to think what God is like, we think in terms of the offering of death, for God gives life, and has the power to take it away. If we had that power, we in our fear and our self-protection would undoubtedly use it. Surely God must be like us.
Paul’s question in Romans 8 is one of the great triumphant shouts of Christian proclamation. “What then shall we say? If God is for us, who can be against us?” But it is more than just a whoop of delight, it is a genuine question to be asked, because the fact is that we – despite our best intentions – can always be against ourselves. We are a people of death, obsessed with ourselves, but God is the creator, the one who gives life to others. Isaac has come into the world as the miracle of the creator’s blessing, because he was conceived by the childless Sarah at a time in her life when her biology no longer allowed the possibility of conceiving and giving birth. To think that God might demand the sacrifice of Isaac is to think that the true God – the creator, the giver of life – is actually some other God, a God who would take life away. Abraham’s assumption is not simply that God requires the life of his son. That itself is appalling beyond words, but in this case God’s requirement would mean not just the death of Isaac but the death of the promised people of whom Abraham is the father.
The Lord has made his covenant with Abraham already in the Genesis story. All nations will be blessed through him and he will become the father of many peoples. To take away the son of his old age is to take away the endless posterity in which he has been encouraged to hope. This demand is one of thoroughgoing death, and yet Abraham – human as he is – thinks it possible. That he does so is itself a corrective to our assumptions. People have speculated as to the origins of this story, and whether it reflects a rejection of an existing cult of human sacrifice. Whether it does or not, the point is that the idea is in the air, the association of the power of God with the offering of death is one which it seems natural to make.
“Every day a little death.” Knowing our inability to learn the lessons of creation and covenant, God comes among us in Christ and transforms that inability to learn. He asks us to be true disciples, true learners, by following Jesus as he walks relentlessly towards suffering and death in Jerusalem. This we are doing in the season of Lent. The readings juxtapose the story of Isaac’s sacrifice with the story of the transfiguration for an obvious reason. It is not human death which God asks us to offer, but divine life. What it means to be human, to be limited, fearful, mortal, is transformed and transfigured before us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The disciples who are witnesses to the events on the mountain, the ones who see Moses and Elijah speaking with their Lord, are those who are on the way to learning the difference between death and life.
Thinking in terms of the physical, of that which dies, they offer to build tents to house the mysterious figures who passed from earthly existence a thousand years before. But what is transfigured before them is not death, but life. The incarnation of Christ is the transfiguration of all humanity, and this moment of vision crystallizes the remaking of what it means to be human. Once remade, recreated in the image of divine life, humanity can be offered not on Mount Moriah but on another hill, called Golgotha, on an altar which we call the cross.
The disciples in Mark’s gospel, so slow to learn, are usually told simply to keep quiet about the wonderful things they see. Here they are told to tell no-one what they had seen, until the Son of Man should have risen from the dead. There is a story to be told, but it is not a story of death. Death itself must be brought to death, emptied of all its power so that human beings are left with nothing to offer but life. Once death is transfigured into life, then human life can at last be offered in love to the one who in the self-giving of the Trinity is nothing other than a life of perfect offering. Once Peter, James and John have truly earned the title disciple, once they have genuinely learned the difference between human death and divine life, then they can proclaim the truth of cross and resurrection combined. Every day more than a little life.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Peter Groves is parish priest of St. Mary Magdalene’s Church, Oxford and a member of the theology faculty of the University of Oxford.