Abraham and Catholic/Christian Tradition
Reflection by Rev. James Ferry
1 December 2009 (FDU, Teaneck campus)
I am a Catholic priest, serving here at FDU as chaplain. These were my remarks at a panel discussion on the prophet / patriarch Abraham from the biblical book of Genesis. The other 2 speakers were an imam and rabbi. This discussion was sponsored by MECA, Muslim Educational and Cultural Association.
 Sin, Atonement, Sacrifice
Atonement means reparation of any wrong or injury.
For example, criminal behavior (e.g., theft) leads to arrest, indictment, a jury trial, and a sentence. Everything that happens to the perpetrator is atonement for the original wrongdoing.
The criminal – or in a religious sense, “sinner” – is called to make good for his bad: “Material harm requires restitution; moral injury calls for satisfaction, which is nothing else than compensation for some wrong done to another.” (John Hardon, S.J. The Catholic Catechism, page 168)
As Christians, everyone has sinned; therefore, everyone must make atonement.
The next question would be the nature of the atonement. What reparation is necessary?
 Christian Sacrifice
Christianity believes in atonement through sacrifice. However, Christianity also believes that no human being can really satisfy God.
This viewpoint leads the Christian to place all faith in the the sacrifice made by the life and death of Jesus. By laying down his life, Jesus makes atonement for all sinners.
All other sacrifices made in the Jewish and Christian Bible foreshadow the sacrifice of Jesus. These other sacrifices prepare the way.
One of these sacrifices is in the life of Abraham who is called to sacrifice his son Isaac. I will discuss more about this in a few minutes.
 Christian Sacrifice and Substitution
We might say that atonement for sin is logical. In other words, the sinner must atone in order to take responsibility. And, no person can really atone for another.
This is what we believe in human and natural terms.
On a divine and supernatural level, however, the Christian believes that Jesus can atone for the sins of others.
In this way, Jesus is the “substitute” for our sins. Now, in an everday sense, “substitute” implies inferiority - e.g., the substitute teacher in a school classroom; the understudy on in a theater stage.
But, the substitution of Jesus is different in Christian faith. Believing Jesus is the Son of God, we believe he is the one who has no sin. As such, he can take on the burden of the sins of his disciples.
So, Jesus becomes a sacrificial substitute for the sins of others.
By the way, this doctrine of “substitution” is particularly emphasized by Protestant and Evangelical traditions. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the notion is accepted but also counterbalanced with the call to conversion by each person.
That is, the Catholic accepts that Christ died for him but also that he is called to lay down his life for the other as well.
This call to conversion means that every person participates in death of Christ by making a gift of oneself. This will mean – in the case of a complete loving relationship - that you and I give our lives for each other.
Such a gift of self calls to mind romantic notions of affection and personal fulfillment, doesn’t it? However, such a gift also means that we suffer for each other as we grow in holiness. Mature loving relationships are fulfilling not because they circumvent sacrifice but because they embrace it.
Pope John Paul II wrote about this when reflecting on the Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan.
In the Christian Gospel, the Good Samaritan does not stop out of curiosity but availability. We are called to do the same as Jesus says, “Go thou and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37)
Sometimes, this will be inconvenient and uncomfortable. (cf. George Weigel, Witness to Hope: Biography of John Paul II, New York: Harper Collins, 199, page 475; John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris).
What I’d like to discuss in the next section is the way that the human person is called to participate in Christ’s suffering by sacrificing.
 How we are called to live
It is part of our Catholic tradition to make sacrifices.
Sacrifices demonstrate that we are faithful to God’s commandments.
What I’d also like to touch on here is the connection between sacrifice and love.
In one of the letters of St. Paul in the Bible, we exhorts married Christians to a strong mutual love, saying: “be subordinate to each other.” (Ephesians 5:21)
Is it a bad thing for a husband to make a decision that will benefit only himself, at the expense of his wife? (or the wife at the expense of her husband?).
What the Christian Bible is saying is that true sacrifice is unselfish.
The challenge in a marriage is for the two spouses to love each other so much so that neither one is ever thinking about individual personal gain. Rather, their higher calling is to love the other so much that they are always doing what is good for both, not just one.
This is the case whenever a person (husband, wife, father, mother) does something on behalf of another person. A truly unselfish act is one that enables me to substitute myself for the good of another.
In Christian tradition, we look to Jesus who gave up his life as the one who made a perfect sacrifice.
That is, Jesus gave up his life for his disciples – his sinful disciples, his ungrateful disciples, his disciples who betrayed him. And, in this way, Jesus also gives his disciples of 2009 the example of how to face those who might betray us.
He also gives us the command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This is Christianity.
 Sacrifice for the Unworthy
In the Catholic liturgy and Catholic Mass, we remember that Jesus gave his life for his disciples.
In the Christian Bible, Saint Paul asks if you – or I – would be willing to give our lives for someone else?
St. Paul points out that we would probably require a very good reason to give up our lives, wouldn’t we?
And, Paul makes the distinction between dying for a person who is “just” as opposed to dying for someone who is “unjust”.
Paul writes: “Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:7-8)
And, this is what we would call a purely unselfish act. Jesus, whom we believe to be sinless and the Son of God, freely gave up his life for sinners. This is the Christian model of unselfish generosity.
 Catholic Worship and The Eucharistic Prayer
In the Catholic Christian liturgy, we remember that this sacrifice – continued by Jesus – also goes back to the Book of the Exodus and earlier.
For example, in one of the Catholic Eucharistic Prayers, the priest says these words which are addressed to God:
Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as once you accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchisedech. (Eucharistic Prayer I, The Roman Canon)
The sacrifice of Abraham is remembered in every Catholic Mass / liturgy.
 Sacrifice and Abraham
Sacrifice is also part of the life of Abraham.
In the biblical book of Genesis, we learn that Abraham does not have any children. There is no one to carry on his line, no one to be his heir.
Abraham is faced with a crisis, feeling despair. He is getting very old. Will he ever have a child?
In the midst of this crisis, Abraham is asked to pick up his possessions, his wife, and move to the land of Canaan.
The Lord speaks to Abraham telling him he will be blessed. However, this blessing does not produce yet what Abraham is seeking. In the blessing, God says, “I will make of you a great nation.”
Taking God at his word, Abraham goes to Canaan.
In Canaan, the Lord tells Abraham more explicitly what he really wants to hear:
Then God shows him the sky telling him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abraham believes; and, Abraham is praised for his faith.
Abraham has two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael, the first by the handmaid Hagar, is the son to whom Muslims trace faith in Abraham. (Genesis 16:15) Isaac is the second son by Abraham’s wife Sara. Isaac is the father of Jacob whose twelve sons represent the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. (Genesis 21:1-8).
Abraham accepts God at his word. Abraham gains credit for his righteousness and he demonstrates faith.
(08) Abraham & Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18)
The faith of Abraham is put to the test when he is asked to sacrifice the life of his son Isaac. And, Abraham is really asked to make a sacrifice for which he can see no benefit.
That is, he really wanted a son. Now he finally has a son. God is asking him to sacrifice what he really wants. In this way, Abraham is a model of faith in God’s will over and against his own desires.
Abraham’s faith is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ fidelity to God. This episode from the Book of Genesis is also important to the total Christian history of salvation.
Here are some of the similarities between the Abraham/Isaac sacrifice and the later sacrifice of Jesus in the Christian Bible:
[three days] - It takes three days for Abraham / Isaac to reach the mountain. For these three days, Abraham knows he must put Isaac to death.
So, in a sense, Isaac has already died. At the end of the 3 days, God sends a messenger to Abraham saying, “Do not lay a hand on the boy… I know how devoted you are to me.”
Meanwhile, in the Christian Bible, Jesus dies on the cross and spends 3 days in the earth before his resurrection.
[wood of the sacrifice] - Isaac is asked to carry the wood for the fire which will burn. This fire would then consume Isaac’s body. Jesus carries the wood of the cross in the Christian Bible.
[lamb, the sheep] - on their way up the mountain, Isaac himself asks his father Abraham, “Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the holocaust.” Here, Abraham ironically says, “God himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice.” Abraham does not know that his words will turn out to be true.
His words turn out to be true because the lamb becomes the substitute for the sacrifice of Isaac. And, in latter-day Christianity, Jesus becomes the substitute for the sinner who would otherwise be punished.
Jesus is also known as the Lamb of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
I pray that our FDU community will grow in peace and understanding for people of all faiths.
I hope these remarks are helpful as on overview of the sacrifice of Abraham and the person of Abraham in the Christian tradition.
Father Jim Ferry
Catholic Priest chaplain at FDU
Fairleigh Dickinson University, Teaneck, NJ