Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of the First Holy Martyrs, those who faced persecution at the hands of the Emperor Nero.
The first scripture reading for today’s Mass is a difficult one – the story Abraham and Isaac recounted in Genesis. Take your son and “offer him up as a burnt offering on a height that I will point out to you,” God instructs Abraham.
What kind of a God, we wonder, asks someone to kill his son? His “only one, whom [he] love[s]”? What does it say about God that he would watch someone kill his son as a demonstration of his fealty? It would be completely understandable if one’s initial reaction were something like: No kind of God that I want to be associated with.
But God, of course, does not actually require Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. And if God never intended to have Abraham go through with the act, why ask it in the first place?
One answer is that this was God’s way of asking Abraham to confront the depth of his faith in and love of God. God says, I give all for the sake of my love for you, holding nothing back. Will you do the same? Will you allow nothing to stand in the way of our love? To us, God might add: I give all for you, including the life of my own son. Will you do the same for me?
Tough question. It is easy to say yes – of course, God, you know I’m with you all the way. I’d do anything to show my love for you. (cf. my post of the other day on faith.)
And I sure want to be able to answer with a wholehearted yes. But when I read stories like those of the martyrs we celebrate today or like the Genesis passage about Abraham, I have to wonder how well I would do if put to the test. “I love you, Lord,” are words I mouth multiple times every day, but acting consistently out of that love – especially when doing so involves great personal cost – is much harder.
I marvel at the depth of the faith and love demonstrated by the martyrs, and of Abraham. And continually pray, “Give me their strength. Deepen my faith. Deepen my love. Help me love like you.”