'The Transfiguration,' by Raphael (Wikimedia Commons)

On this second Sunday of Lent, we have a set of readings on dead sons. Beloved sons that die because they are beloved. 

At least that’s what Jon D. Levenson, an Old Testament scholar, suggests. He offers a compelling exegesis that to be beloved, in scripture, is really to be cursed. Think of Isaac, Joseph, Jesus. 

According to Levenson, child sacrifice as a practice was largely out of fashion by the time some of these Old Testament stories were written down, but the narrative of the “suffering son” continued as a literary trope for interpreting what seems to be perpetual bad luck for God’s chosen people. Chosenness, in this scheme, is a cross on one’s shoulders. To be chosen is to suffer. To be beloved is to die. 

I am reassured only slightly by the fact that certain biblical stories are probably only stories, that they are telling us a literary or theological truth rather than a historical one. But even with this reassurance, the readings for this Sunday can be hard to hear—for anyone I presume, but they may have a particularly painful poignance for those with sons or, worse, those with sons who have died. 

I have sons, two, and my mom and dad had two sons, too, one of whom is no longer alive. He died by suicide in 2015, after a fight against addiction and depression. I wrote about him, about death, several Lents ago for Commonweal. Every Lent the ashes are reapplied, and every Lent I think of his ashes; every Lent these readings arrive, and every Lent I bristle at them. But then, “bristling” seems the right reaction for Lent.

But then, “bristling” seems the right reaction for Lent.

It's difficult to imagine an alternative to bristling: to imagine sitting peacefully in the pews after such a loss, the kind of loss my parents have endured. It’s painful to imagine their pain while hearing the story of Abraham lifting the knife to slaughter Isaac, a scriptural precedent that is later affirmed in Romans, praising a God that “did not spare his own son, but handed him over for us all.” It’s difficult to imagine the thing most beloved, most cherished, taken from us. It’s difficult because inevitably we imagine our own sons, our devotion to them—their belovedness—the very thing that damns them, that leads to their death. We stop our imaginations before the thought of lifting the knife, a thought so vile and stomach-turning that bristling alone seems far insufficient.  

Of course, I know we are working in the world of allegory. I know, as Levenson does, that these stories are meant to point beyond the literal language; they are meant to make sense of suffering despite a promise from God that we are chosen, beloved. I know stories of sacrificed sons are set-ups for salvation when the Beloved Son dies for our sins. I know, I know. And yet, and yet. 

 “This is my Beloved Son, listen to him,” says the cloud in the Gospel, and suddenly the scene shifts from dazzling to deathlike. Remember: to be beloved is a curse. See how we descend the mountain at the mention of it? The disciples are alone with Jesus, who swears them to secrecy until death is overcome. 

In Lent we wait, like John and James and Peter, to find out what rising from the dead could possibly mean. We endure death, which seems to have the final word. We bristle at the mention of being beloved, that damning, doting phrase. We wait, with the small hope of witnessing that dazzling white once again, a sure sign our sons will be safe, our sons will be saved.  

Ellen B. Koneck is the executive director of Commonweal.

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