The traditional model of Christian sainthood goes all the way back to Abraham. Actually, it goes all the way back to the stories of Abraham and Sarah. The fragment of historical truth beneath those stories refers to ancient migrations from what is now Iraq to Palestine—events that happened centuries before these biblical stories were written down.
Central within the Abraham and Sarah stories is a story about Abraham’s journey to the top of a mountain to sacrifice Isaac—his only son, the son miraculously given to him and Sarah in their advanced age. In this strange story, Abraham is giving back the gift of Isaac, who was Abraham’s only evidence for a promise made to Abraham by the Giver of Isaac—a promise to make the descendants of Abraham and Sarah as numerous as the sands on the sea shore.
Centuries after the Exodus from Egypt, when these stories were being widely told, written, and read, this promise to Abraham was still not realized. The Hebraic people who claimed Abraham as their forefather were not yet numerous. Today, we might assume that all the Jewish people, all the Christian people, and all the Islamic people are somehow descendants of Abraham. If so, then Abraham’s descendants are indeed in the billions. All these people are not biological descendants, but they are at least people who remember Abraham and Sarah and Hagar. Only a few of these billions, however, embody Abraham’s model of sainthood.
Why should we honor the Abraham stories or his model of sainthood? These stories are fiction after all, and rather gross fiction as well. And especially, why all the fuss over this strange story about human sacrifice? Why did a fully sane and renowned 19th century philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, write a whole book about this story?
This essay will be much simpler than Kiekegaard’s book. I am going to reflect on one idea: “Giving back to Reality all that Reality has given to us.”
Human consciousness includes both taking-in Reality and intending changes in the course of Reality—not big changes in the whole cosmic process, but quite small changes in he course of Reality, as this Real Mysteriousness is relating to me or to you about our personal destiny over which we have some real but quite limited control. Our freedom to “bend history,” as we sometimes call it, is a very important part of what it means to be a humanly conscious being.
Also, time marches on relentlessly giving back our whole lives to the Reality that has given us our lives and is still giving us life as well as taking it back. Sometimes I am glad for time to march on. Sometimes I am clinging to times that I do not want to pass. Sometimes I am glad that periods of my life are over. And sometimes I would like to go back to one or more of these past times. But time marches on. We confront giving our lives back in ways that are in accord with our preferences and in ways that are not in accord with our preferences.
Giving back our lives to the Reality that gives our lives is not about preferences. We are discussing an intentional giving of whatever has been given to us. And we are discussing giving back what we have been given within the given circumstances of the neighboring realities that are being given to us as context for the giving back of our many or few gifts to those neighboring realities.
Like Abraham and Sarah, we may have been given a son or a daughter or several of one of both. As a Christian saint, I am asked to give my descendants back to the Reality that gave them to me. If I am clinging to my children as a means of enhancing my own status or pleasure or pride or even shame, I am destroying my children as well as my role as a responsible father, or mother. Indeed, when my children have become adults, Reality has already taken them back, whether I want to give them up or not. And that is the “natural” course for all our gifts—to be given back.
If I am clinging to my vocation simply as a means of holding on to some status or maintaining my survival, I do not yet have a saintly vocation in the Abrahamic sense. To have a saintly vocation, I must pursue my vocation as an expending (i.e. a giving) of my time and energy to values other than my own needs. This giving may include some attention to my own needs. As Jesus taught his disciples, “Serve the Reign of Reality with all your gifts, and you, the servant, will also be cared for as well.“ (I have paraphrased, but only slightly.) When Jesus sent out his disciples to take the Good News to Galilean villages, he instructed them, “Take only minimum stuff, eat what they offer you, sleep where they put you. Don’t shop around for a better bed. Just give and receive the gifts given to you to keep you going with your ongoing giving.” (Again, I paraphrase.)
Luke saw clearly that Mark and Matthew before him had drawn a picture of Jesus that was to be a model for Christian sainthood. So Luke surely had in mind sharing Jesus as his model of Christian sainthood when he pictured Jesus saying these last words on the cross, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” We can receive this verse as a meaning for our own death and dying: “Into the power of the Giver of my life, I give back my consciousness.” In other words, I can let Reality have my consciousness, however profound or limited that consciousness may be. In so viewing my death, I give over my entire life to the Reality that gave me all that was given to me. Reality, without me, will carry on my giving, my bending of history.
Another famous saying also applies to this perspective, “To whom much is given, much shall be required.” This lesson is the opposite of the all too familiar monopoly-game sense of things, “To whom much is given, even more shall be taken from the losers who are too poor to compete with me.” Contrary to such narcissism, “Response—-ability to God” means day-by-day, year-by-year, giving back our gifts to the Giver of those gifts. We give to the Giver by way of giving our gifts to our neighboring realities, those humans and other beings whom God also loves. This is the Abrahamic faith.
For more on these profound topics, I recommend:
The Call of the Awe: Rediscovering Christian Profundity
in an Interreligious Era