Tomorrow will be the twelfth day of Christmas and the day after that, in the Church, we celebrate Epiphany. Epiphany comes from the Greek word meaning “manifestation” and, in Christianity, it marks the visit from the three wise men to the baby Jesus, when the majesty of Christ was revealed to them. I can’t think of a better way to spend the weekend of Epiphany than on a camel with two amazing friends in Petra, around 150km from Bethlehem. And, as we climbed the path to the ruins of the monastery, I was reminded of the strange story of Abraham and Isaac that is found in Genesis 22:
“God said to Abraham, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
And early that morning, Abraham loads everything on a donkey and sets out with his son, Isaac. Yet, when he gets to the very top of the mountain (probably much taller than the one we climbed that morning in Petra because we are told that it takes Abraham and Isaac three days to get to the top), he is about to sacrifice Isaac when the situation takes a completely different turn of events:
“The angel of the Lord called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am!” He replied.
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
And it is understandably quite easy to get bogged down with the gruesome nature of this story and wonder what place it has in a faith that many believe rests on the unconditional and profoundly selfless love of God. But as we climbed up the path to the ruins of the monastery, I thought that maybe the story of the journey of Abraham, whatever we believe about its origins and veracity, tells us a few very real truths about humanity:
1. We nearly always think we know what is best and so we often follow our plans through with such urgency that when we get to the end of a journey and find that we perhaps didn’t know the outcome at all, we are taken completely by surprise.
2. It often takes us much too long to realise that the path we are on is the wrong one.
And by this I don’t mean to take away the sense of Abraham’s profound faith which is seen to be at the centre of this story, but simply to say that maybe we can learn something from the way in which this story ends so very differently to the one which is suggested at its beginning. I, for one, am certainly guilty of getting fixated on “the right way” and thus storming towards the finish line at great speed before realising that actually maybe at some point, I had forgotten to listen to the much quieter, calmer, inner voice.
And I, too, am guilty of struggling to understand what is meant by “true sacrifice” which, after all, is what is at the heart of this story. In my own journey of discernment of a path towards ordination, I find it sometimes much to easy to get wrapped up in what I might think of as my own sacrifices: giving up evenings and weekends, the chance of earning more money, the taking on of responsibility and the chance to “just do something else”. In the weekend of Epiphany, as we remember the gifts that the wise men carried to Bethlehem on their own camels as they trekked to see the gift of the baby Jesus, it is right that we should think of the gifts that we can offer to God and the sacrifices that we too can make. But as I looked round at the stunningly beautiful surroundings from the top of that hill in Petra and felt the unassuming love of friendship, I wondered whether maybe we shouldn’t also remember that the things that we are given by God will always be so much greater than the things that we feel we have to give up.