Friday, May 29, 2009

2-17-2008: 2nd Lent (A)

Genesis 12:1-4/Psalm 33/Timothy 1:8-10/Matthew 17:1-9
Sigmund Freud once remarked that Jews excelled in the world of thought because they believed in an invisible god, thus enhancing their powers of abstraction. Freud argued that Judaism helped free humanity from bondage to the empirical world; suggesting faith in an invisible god facilitated the journey of the life within. That interior journey is made external in the story of Abraham in today’s first reading. “Go forth from your father’s house,” the disembodied voice tells Abraham. “To a land that I will show you.”

There’s a little known extra-biblical account of the story of Abraham called the Apocalypse of Abraham, whose origins and date of composition are uncertain (perhaps written in Palestine in 100 AD or so). In it there’s a scene of Abraham as a young teen helping in his father’s trade -- carving images of the gods, idols for worship. It was an important and no doubt lucrative business in a culture that placed such importance on idol worship. Abraham’s father tried to instill in his son a respect and piety toward the gods. Until one day, after a storm, Abraham finds one of the idols knocked over and decapitated. Later he leaves a small hand-sized idol to guard the fire only to find, on his return, the idol being consumed by the flames. Abraham is courageous enough – or perhaps young enough – to conclude that the gods might not be as powerful as he was led to believe; subject, as much as we, to accident and mishap. I’d like to suggest that, at that moment, Abraham becomes the first known atheist in history, abandoning his belief in the power of the gods. It is only then, in the sway of unbelief and disillusionment, that he is able to hear the divine voice (which, for Abraham, always remains disembodied) commanding him to leave his world behind and begin what would become a remarkable journey.

At the risk of invoking cries of heresy I’d suggest that Lent is, for us, an excursion into atheism. Lent tempts (or calls) us to leave our idols behind. Lent reveals those idols, once all shiny and new, to be impotent, decapitated, burned out, an illusion. Bereft, then, of those familiar crutches, we might begin to discern a whisper -- from who knows where -- that tells us to go forth into the unknown. The only difference here between a person with faith and one without is the attitude with which we embark on the adventure. In the Apocalypse of Abraham, Abraham’s youth can be seen as the excuse for leaving home and family. But in Genesis, Abraham is already an old man when he begins his journey – the exuberance of youth can no longer be seen as the rationalization for such radical behavior. Because Abraham is so old, we can only conclude that it is the enticement of the disembodied voice which exerts such power on his imagination. And imagination – that land to which the power of abstract thinking brings us – is not bound by age or infirmity or the cynicism that comes from lived experience.
Lent is that land, that place where believers are turned into atheists, so that divested of the idols that a lifetime of pious devotion has made, they might hear that same voice, be it ever so distant and faint, commanding them: Go forth…to a land that I will show you.

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