Only a few miles from here, in the Church of St. Stephen in Kearny, there’s a unique and historic place.  It’s called the Sanctuary of the Four Chaplains, which was only dedicated in 2016 but recalls a remarkable story from over 80 years ago.  At what was the height of the Second World War, an Army Transport Ship carrying close to 1,000 soldiers and civilian workers was traveling the icy waters of the Northern Atlantic en route to an American base in Greenland when a German submarine fired a torpedo at the ship causing the nearly 6,000-ton vessel to sink below the surface in 20 minutes.  In the commotion of the attack, surviving witnesses explained how these four chaplains – Lt. George L. Fox, who was Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, who was Jewish; Lt. Clark V. Poling, who was Dutch Reformed, and Lt. John P. Washington, who was a Roman Catholic priest from the Archdiocese of Newark immediately spread out among the soldiers – trying to calm the frightened, tend to the wounded, and guide the disoriented to safety.  Private William B. Bednar, one of the survivors, described how he found himself floating in oil-smeared water surrounded by dead bodies and debris.  Private Bednar recalls, “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying; I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage.  Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT February 25, 2024.  I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

After the initial attack and shock had registered, most of the men were topside, and the chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets.  It was then that Engineer Grady Clark, another survivor, witnessed an astonishing sight.  When no more lifejackets were in the storage room, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men.  “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven,” said John Ladd, another survivor, who saw the chaplains’ selfless act.  As the ship descended, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains–arms linked and braced against the slanting deck.  Their voices could also be heard offering prayers.

Of the 902 men aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, 672 died, leaving 230 survivors.  When the news reached American shores, the nation was stunned by the tragedy and in awe of the heroic conduct of the four chaplains.  St. Stephens in Kearny, which was the last parochial assignment for Fr. Washington before enlisting in the Army as a military chaplain after the attack on Pearl Harbor, has now become this permanent remembrance for the four chaplains – who are described accurately as brave, courageous.

But why it comes to mind this Second Sunday of Lent is because they were so incredibly selfless.  How does someone perform these ultimate acts, which Jesus calls and will demonstrate as “no greater love.”

We heard these scriptures today, which, without some reflection, can be (and have frequently been) wildly misinterpreted—particularly that first reading from Genesis.  We hear Abraham being ordered to sacrifice his son, the one whom God observes and speaks to Abraham as “your only one, whom you love…” and to sacrifice him.  At the last second, as Isaac is situated and bound on the altar and Abraham has the knife ready, there’s this seemingly last-minute reprieve.  It makes people, at a minimum, wince.  It feels like this cruel test of faith that Abraham has to prove to God how loyal he would be to the Lord.  When, in fact, it’s the complete opposite.

At this point in the history of humanity, in every other culture – all the false pagan religions that surrounded the Jewish people – human sacrifice was accepted and was part of their expectations.  The destruction of another life for the needs wants, and desires of these demonic influences was yet another by-product of sin entering into the world, where people fell for the lie that there’s ever a reason for one human being to take another human being’s life.  Where one human being can look at another human being and not see them as human beings with inherent dignity.  That just on the most basic of levels there would be humility to recognize I didn’t just summon myself into existence and neither did anyone else.  Which all points to having a creator outside of this world of ours.  That such logic could be ignored and lost and human sacrifice could be accepted, well it’s shocking how barbaric those ancient cultures were.  Oh yeah, that’s right, our culture isn’t much better, with very vocal people who do the same thing – wanting to paint being “Pro-Life” as something along the lines of being a terrorist as they are increasingly and more aggressively advocating for the death of innocent lives in the womb.

In this reading from Genesis, the only God, the Lord God, is teaching Abraham about the goodness, dignity, and preciousness of human life.  Isaac wasn’t just any human being.  Sarah and Abraham, after being unable to have a child, miraculously, in their late 80’s, the promised son, Isaac, is conceived and born.  This genuine gift of God was so unexpected that Isaac’s name means “he laughs” because Sarah is quoted at the birth as saying, “God made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me…who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children?  Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” But it’s not a mocking laugh…  But it’s a joyful laughter.  Isaac’s name also means “rejoice.”  So this young man who’s brought laughter and joy into the lives of Sarah and Abraham is now marked for sacrifice?  On the surface and out of context, it just seems horrifically cruel.

But this continues what we started reflecting on last week, the first week of Lent.  Last week, we heard about Noah and the ark how God was making a way to re-create the brokenness of creation through one man who remained faithful, obedient, and listened to God’s word.  Through Noah’s faith in the Lord God, there was a way out from the brokenness of this world; there was salvation from sin as the waters of the flood receded.

In this reading, the lesson of faith is how salvation was going to come about for all humanity and all creation.  The Lord God is making Abraham look into the face of his own son.  The son he desperately longed for, had never expected, now has rejoiced over.  The one he loves more than anything in this earth and has to get to this place where he’s got to confront himself.  Does Abraham know God and who He truly is?  Does Abraham love God?  Does Abraham trust God?  Unfortunately, the lectionary gives us an abbreviated version of this entire episode.  It leaves out Isaac and Abraham’s dialogue where Isaac asks where the offering that they are making to the Lord God is, and Abraham says, ‘God will provide himself the lamb…’ In one sense, that is a statement of fact.  Abraham knows that Isaac is only here by God’s miraculous hand.  But it’s also a prayer of a father for his son.  It’s a statement of faith where Abraham does know that the Lord God is good, loving, and holy – and that everything up to this point has been unpredictable according to human, worldly terms, so why should things be different now?

What Abraham probably didn’t realize is how prophetic his words would be.  “God will provide himself the lamb…”  Is going to be seen in an entirely different light in the life, death and resurrection of God-become-man-incarnate in Jesus.  No, the creator of all the universe would not want us to be using, taking, and abusing his creation for our wants, needs, and desires.  But instead wants us to die to those things.  To recognize when we do that when we become selfless ourselves, we experience true, genuine, sincere love.  We enter into the very life of our triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  That’s what the Gospel today is explaining.  This Gospel seems to come out of left field.  Last week, we were reflecting on Jesus in the desert for 40 days of fasting, facing temptations by the devil.  Now, he takes Peter, James, and John alone up this high mountain, and his “glory” is revealed as Jesus is transfigured and Moses and Elijah appear.  My man Peter, I love him, love his impulsiveness and just knee-jerk reactions, probably because they seem so relatable.  He’s thinking, ‘I knew I was right when I said you were the Christ!!!!’ “It’s good we’re here… let us make three tents…” Let’s stay here.

Sorry Peter: Open mouth, insert foot – wrong again… This isn’t the glory that the Lord God is interested in.  It’s amazing for sure – but it’s an exciting moment.  A moment that will recede from these three men’s minds and hearts very quickly in the horrors of Good Friday when that same Jesus is abandoned, rejected, tortured, and crucified.

The Transfiguration is pointing to the true glory that is to come on Mount Calvary.  When God Himself will in the ultimate act of selflessness show us that true glory.  When the Father will offer His only Son as the lamb of sacrifice.  In the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the true depths of the heart of God that Noah had faith in and that Abraham believed and trusted in are revealed.  The glory of God on that mountain top could be found even here and now, even amid a still-broken world, a world that still suffers the effects of Original sin and the trials, struggles, and setbacks from our un-original, continued sinning.  We can find salvation from all of that, when we remember God pointing us to Jesus, when we hear the Father’s voice saying to us, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to Him.”

That’s what Father Washington and his three fellow Chaplains demonstrated in an amazingly profound way as they offered their life vests to their fellow soldiers and their very lives for others.  That selflessness and sacrifice only makes sense when one has faith and trust in the God of Noah and Abraham, when one has experienced the Love of Jesus Christ when one knows they can call on the Lord God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and have faith, hope and love in Him and His promises.

As we continue our Lenten journey, we’re not asked whether we could be as brave as one of those four chaplains or if we have the confidence and faith that Abraham did.  If you’re anything like me, more than likely you can relate to Peter, James, and John, who are still trying to take it all in and who find that logic and reason will fail as they try to wrap their minds around it all.  It’s only in light of Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead, that they can face their failures; receive His mercy, His forgiveness, and that all of these words, and all of these experiences convict and transform their hearts.

So it is with each of us.  In this penitential season of Lent, we’re asked to continue to dig deep.  To examine our consciences and see areas of selfishness or self-centeredness – places where I’ve put myself, my wants, my needs, and desires ahead of everyone and everything else, including God Himself – and reevaluate.  Rethink that.  Dig deep and courageously go ask for and receive His mercy by bringing all our sins to Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, making a good confession and experiencing His forgiveness…  Listen to the beloved son and respond to God’s call and be more, do more, and receive more of His grace into our lives so that, like the Four Chaplains, we can be heroic by bringing God and His truly life-saving love into our world.