This Sunday we hear about one of the most important events in the entire Bible--the call of Abraham (Gen 12:1-3). It is a central event not just of the Bible but of human history because Abraham, besides being the father of the Jewish race, is also the spiritual father of Christians (cf. Rom 4:16). The Moslems too consider him their father in faith--and the Arab people their physical father thru Ishmael. Abraham is a very important person and it is vital for us to understand what was involved in his call.
Or to be more specific this Sunday, what God called him out of. God spoke to Abraham while he was living in Ur of Chaldees, a city in lower Mesopotamia (present day Iraq). God told Abraham to leave the land of Ur and go to a land He would show him. What was so bad about Ur of the Chaldees that he couldn't just practice his faith there?
We know something about Ur from the Bible. Joshua tells the people that Abraham had to leave the gods beyond the River (Euphrates) and that they have to choose whether they will serve those gods or God Himself. (Josh 24:14) Those gods were the gods of the culture. This century we learned more about that culture because of archaeological explorations in the ruins of Ur. It turns out that Ur was a large city with spacious streets and ample markets. But most impressive were the huge structures they built called ziggurats which were like early skyscrapers. When the Bible speaks of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11), it was probably referring to one of those ziggurats. What we see in Ur is a prosperous city with dazzling new technology. They had the very latest.
Prosperity and technology are not bad in themselves, but in the case of Ur there was a dark underside. Like many ancient religions they worshipped the life force or fertility gods. The rites were like orgies complete with temple prostitutes--male and female. And as also was common in those days, they practiced human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of infants. Their gods demanded the blood of many, many children. It was those hideous gods Abraham was told to leave.
Abraham is our Father in Faith. God asks us to make a decision similar to his: Are we going to serve God or the gods of our culture? Are we willing to even pick up stakes in order to leave behind those gods and go to a land He will show us? The gods of our culture are remarkably like those Abraham renounced when he left Ur. For the folks in Ur the main goal was prosperity. Last year the only thing that seemed to matter for many people was how the stock market was doing. The citizens of Ur were also men of the bottom line. They preferred gods who could, as they say, deliver the goods.
The people of Ur were into technology. They possessed what was most advanced for the beginning of the second millennium B.C. Technology like prosperity is not bad in itself. For example medical technology each year does more and more amazing things. (Those inclined to make our culture into a religion call these medical advances miracles.) The problem however is that our technology is sometimes so brilliant it can blind us to the dark underside of our society. The Holy Father warned us about it once again in his visit to St. Louis: the culture of death.
Like Ur the gods of our culture also demand child sacrifice. I am not thinking immediately about abortion even tho it is the most dramatic example. The sacrifice of children can happen in more subtle ways. When I talk with young couples about family plans, one of the things I hear is, "Father, it is so expensive to have a child. We are going to wait a few years." I bite my tongue because I know if I say something, they will conclude that father is out of it, that I do not appreciate what they are up against.
A priest friend was once talking with a professional couple about family. Both were earning around a hundred thousand dollars a year. He asked their plans concerning children. They replied that they just could not afford to have a child right now! Obviously, they did not say that because of any reasonable analysis. It was more like they were mouthing a religious dogma. Indeed cannot afford a child is a shibboleth of our cultural religion. (I will mention another stock phrase at the conclusion.)
These remarks will infuriate some people. "Who is he to question us about number of children? Maybe he would like to try paying to raise them." Well, I do not want to belittle the costs of raising a child, but we need to ask ourselves how much of our way of looking at this is because we have uncritically absorbed values from our culture.
I do know a family who has made a counter-cultural choice: they have five children--and a sixth on the way. The father is the only wage earner; the mom works at home caring for the children. They have a small home which they keep fixing up. They drive a used car and their vacations involve pitching a tent at a campsite. Perhaps the most important choice was not to have a television set. Thru it our culture bombards children with advertisements, drawing them into consumerism. "Dad, buy me this game. Mom, I need those shoes." Consumerism, buying things we really don't need, is the basis of our whole culture of death.
Those parents of a large family are like Abraham and Sara. They have heard the call to leave behind the gods of the culture to follow God into a new land. They have endured some scorn, but at the same time they have found something valuable in that new land. Their children are not marked by what seems so common in our society--an aloof flippancy. Kids today give the impression they have already looked at life--and seen thru it. Of course any child can figure out how to see thru other people. What takes effort is to actually see them.
The kids in this relatively large family have developed an ability to see the person in front of them. They have the right combination of respect and friendliness. They also show a spirit of inquiry, a curiosity about people and things. They want to understand, not just to be dazzled.
Now I don't want to idealize those kids or to suggest every couple should have six children. The Church does not propose any specific family size--altho it does see a large family as a "sign of God's blessing and the parents' generosity." (Catechism #2373) Still it is a decision of the parents to be made in prayer. But I do want to ask you to consider this: in light of the cultural pressure against large families, pray about having one more child than what you originally planned. You will be amazed what effect that openness will have on your marriage and present children.
Jesus is calling each of us to a new land, to leave behind the gods of culture, to get beyond appearances to what matters. You notice Jesus takes his three closest disciples up a mountain. He wants to spend some time apart with Peter, James and John. Jesus desires to do that with you and me this Lent. There is no way of hearing Jesus voice without time alone with him.
I am going to be honest with you. I am attracted by what our culture has to offer. Prosperity is good and I want to do my part to extend it to others in the world. I am amazed, sometimes even dazzled, by all the new advances in technology and acknowledge its potential in communicating the Gospel. But at the same time, God help me--and God help you--if we don't also recognize the terrible dark side of our culture. The only way to avoid being sucked into it is by spending time with Jesus.
Time centered on Jesus includes Sunday Mass, for sure. It is an obligation which comes from the Third Commandment. Hopefully, during the Mass there will be moments when each person can communicate deeply with Him. But also we need instances of prayer each day. We live in such a noisy, distracted culture. Someone said that for many people there are only two times when they are by themselves--driving the car or in the bathroom. Hopefully, we can do better than that. Some in our parish have made all nite vigils before the Blessed Sacrament. If you cannot do that consider at least an hour before the Lord. But if not, at least try to make use of the instances which come your way. God can speak to us anywhere--even in a traffic tie-up on I-5.
Jesus wants to take us apart a while with him. He alone can give us what we really need. Our society thinks it knows what we need: to just "accept ourselves" and get on with it. Self-acceptance is a cornerstone doctrine of our cultural creed. I was talking with a woman who had undergone an abortion. Her friends kept telling her the main thing was being able to forgive herself.* But she knew that much more important was to ask forgiveness of those she had wronged--and of Jesus himself. That is why today Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus about his coming passion, death and resurrection. Because of them we can approach Jesus and receive from him the greatest gift--forgiveness and true life in him.
*If you want to find out how unbiblical that phrase is, go to a Bible search engine and type in "forgive yourself." See if that phrase or any reflexive form of forgive is in the Bible, e.g. "I was finally able to forgive myself." While at the search engine, try also typing in the word truth and see how many come up. Then see if you can find it together with a possessive pronoun like my truth or your truth (except referring to God's truth). Another one to look for is the saying, "God helps those who help themselves." (Or concepts like self-reliance and self-confidence, not to mention today's favorite--self-esteem.) I offer these as examples of how far the religion of our culture is from the religion of the Bible.
The creed of our culture: Secular Humanism
For more on the choice between God and gods of culture see: Women Priests?, Birth Control & NFP, Abortion & Pro-Choice, and Flawed Expectations.
Homilies for Second Sunday of Lent ("Transfiguration Sunday")
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
He Approached the Victim: "It's much more likely one of your relatives will lose his life by surgical abortion than by heart attack."
Stem Cell Research: Teaching of Bible & Catholic Church
Germaine Greer on Birth Control
Human Cloning: A Catholic Perspective (How the Unthinkable Became Inevitable)