[This was posted on Facebook on the Feast of the Holy Family, December 31st, and at Beyond All Telling the next day.]
“By faith, Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.’ He reasoned that God could raise even from the dead; indeed, Abraham received Isaac from the dead, in parable” (Hebrews 11:17-19). That last clause is uncanny.
What does it mean that Abraham did in fact receive Isaac from the dead, in parable?
Two Abrahamic readings are an option for the Feast of the Holy Family. Paired with the Gospel of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, a question is raised: why this sequence of readings on a day celebrating the household of Nazareth?
Obviously, the promises to Abraham are in the process of final consummation when baby Jesus is presented by Mary and Joseph in the Temple. But as a whole, on this feast day, by this sequence of readings, the Church is placing the household, family life, under the sign of radical faith, the faith of the dark night.
For the purpose of all the promises of the good Father is the coming of the Kingdom of His Son. And all that is in the world must be ordered, without remainder, into the pattern of the Kingdom. The corruptions of the good must be thwarted and remedied, yes. But it is also true that the good things themselves must each be ordered, without remainder, according to the Kingdom demand for universal intimacy.
For those of us who care for the integrity of family life in the world, this is something we must hear over and over again. “Family values” must not be perverted into an ideology, a club with which we attempt to beat a supposedly godless world “out there” into submission. “Family values” are ALWAYS to be measured against the demands of the Kingdom, the first law of which is a love that has no limit: “Love one another, as I have loved you”—the fundamental law of human perfection and therefore of the world’s transformation (as we read in Gaudium et spes 38).
What kind of love is that? Loving unto utter humiliation, even unto death. To love passionately, recklessly. To love in a way so preemptive, unilateral, and asymmetrical, it becomes impossible for us to do Satan’s work of arguing a case against the other. The Spirit of the crucified Jesus is the Spirit that justifies.
So, it is a grotesque blasphemy to pervert “family values” into an instrument of judgmentalism and partisan combat. It is counter-evangelical, advancing only the kingdom of Satan.
It’s not “those others” who need saving by Jesus. It is every single one of us, at every single instant. As we need the conserving power of God to sustain our existence, no less constantly and totally does our moral existence require the impulsion of grace’s directionality. Otherwise, the flight of human freedom collapses by the gravity of concupiscence. (This necessity of actual grace is twofold: because of the privation of the preternatural gift of integrity, and because no motion, even rational and free motion, can be perfective without the movement of the First Mover.)
The surest sign that “the world” has found an even more insidious way to have the upper hand in our hearts is for us Christians to think our being Christian means we are superior. In fact, the more Christian we are, the more we identify with all the others. If Jesus is the man for all the others, then that solidary love is the criterion of Christianity as such.
Thus, Christianity is utterly radical. It must not be domesticated. Let’s return to the uncanny verse about Abraham’s indeed having received Isaac from the dead, in parable. The author of the letter to the Hebrews is extending the Pauline logic: “But as for me, may I never boast, except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything. What counts is a new creation” (Galatians 6:14-15).
When Abraham was confronted by the decisive covenant test of his life (the command to sacrifice his son), his faith in the goodness, and in the power, of God the Father did not waver. And in that act of faith, he died to the world, and the world died to him. For Abraham, faith destroyed the hold of the world’s calculations over him, killed the last temptation to a mortal grasping for a secure handhold in life. He let go, and fell into the abyss of the Father.
Every single one of us starts out valuing reality according to the world’s values. We think money, planning, our contracted notion of “natural law” are the real deal, the prime analogate. But the truth of the world is not in the world, this necropolitan parody of the really real.
When we are broken by the dark night, when we are slaughtered in our surrendering of all we have valued most precious and dear, we open our eyes, blinking, to find that the center of gravity is not where we thought it was. All the beauty and good of this world is real, but only real from an anchorage in the invisible. As a parable of infinite beauty and good, the world has its proper truth, an ex-centric integrity. To let God take everything away in the extremity of faith, is to receive Isaac back. The beloved we have surrendered, returns. (And this is what Kierkegaard keeps pointing to.)
To express it in the terms of the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: Abraham died for the invisible, making him the true metaphysical lover.
That’s what the mystery of the Presentation is about: not circumcision as an end in itself, but total submission to the exigencies of the new creation.
And that’s what the Feast of the Holy Family is about: the submission of the deepest rhythms of human existence to the absolute demands of a love without end.