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In Praise of St. Peter's Chair

alec vanderboom

Berini's gilt bronz casting of the relic of Chair of St. Peter, 1647-53, Rome
Genesis 22.1-19

“After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?” Abraham said, “God himself with provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place, The Lord will provide,” as its said to this day, “on the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make you offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gates of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went to together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.”

Two years ago, I freaked out the leader of my Mother’s Rosary Group with a series of intense questions about this readings. I had grown up hearing this Bible story in Sunday School, of course. Yet one Easter Vigil, the intensity of this reading hit my soul.

We, the descendants of Abraham, received our blessings because our ancestor was a man ready to kill his son at the command of God.

How did Abraham know for certain that Isaac's sacrifice was demanded by God? What did he think about during his three-day trek to the mountain with Isaac? Did he tell Sarah what he was going to do to Isaac? Did she get to say goodbye to her son? If he kept it a secret from her, what did that say about their marriage?

After the Angel stopped Abraham, what happened next? Even if Abraham was stopped at the last moment, Isaac now knows that his father is willing to kill him? How could Isaac forgive his father? Would that event mar the father/son relationship forever? How could Sarah forgive Abraham when he got back home and told her what happened?

It felt downright creepy to celebrate an act of inter-family violence that was commanded by God, and then stayed by God at the last moment.

I don’t have answers to those questions. Somehow, they don’t bother me as much. The reading now makes sense on an emotional level, if not clearly on an intellectual level: that God would send his blessings down on the one human family that clearly demonstrated the trait of “obedience.”

Today’s Washington Post contains a scathing attack on the authority of the U.S. Counsel of Bishops. I realize that obedience is something we Catholic still struggle to uphold. If we think of our Bishop, and ultimately our Holy Father, as just two more authority figures in our lives, it is easy to feel rebellious. It’s much, much more difficult to view the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church as clearly linked to the authority of the Holy Spirit. I hope Bernini's St. Peter’s Chair makes that linkage a little more obvious for us.

Prayer: Father Abraham, pray for us. Help us to trust the voice of the shepard and safely remain within the folds of the church.