Windows of Salvation – The Altars of Cain and Abel
Sometimes it’s interesting to think about the use of idioms in English. Have you ever thought about the saying, “the cream of the crop?” In a literal sense, I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean, exactly. If it’s referring to cream of wheat, or creamed corn, or cream of mushroom, it’s hard to imagine that those give way to the meaning of the “best of the best!”
This idiom is especially appropriate for today’s stained-glass window. This one might be a little difficult to figure out on the surface, but it depicts two altars of stone, one with smoke rising up to heaven, and the other with smoke falling to the earth. It refers to the first two sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. Genesis 4 tells us about them, and that while Abel became a “herder of flocks,” Cain was a “tiller of the ground.” Each offered a burnt offering on an altar (as the window depicts), but while Cain offered a portion of his crops, Abel offered the fat of one of his finest animals. Genesis tells us that “the Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering, he did not look with favor.”
So what was so wrong with Cain’s offering? Is God more of a “meat lover’s” pizza guy than a veggie pizza guy? We aren’t told exactly what the issue was, and it doesn’t appear to be the kind of sacrifice itself, but rather the quality and way in which it was offered. God even offers some fatherly counsel to Cain, saying, “If you act rightly, you will be accepted; but if not, sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can rule over it.” Sin is like a predator in this passage, and indeed, that predator of envy slowly stalked the heart of Cain, and he murdered his brother, leading to his exile and wandering of the earth.
The traditional interpretation of why God chose to favor Abel but not Cain is that while Abel gave the “best of the best” of his flocks, Cain gave from his surplus. The produce of the earth that Cain brought was ultimately replaceable, but sacrificing the best lamb of the flock has more of a permanence and gravity to it. Pope John Paul II said that one of the greatest losses due to sin was the way that mankind began to calculate and scheme to get something from the other, rather than offer the gift of self. Even a mere generation later, we can see the effects of Adam and Eve’s sin on their descendants.
God calls each of us to give of our first fruits, the gift of ourselves. We need only to think of the widow’s gift in the Temple (Luke 21:1-4), where it isn’t the amount of her gift that matters most, but the way in which it was given. In a perfect way, then, the greatest sacrifice once and for all is the Cross, where Christ offered his very life back to the Father for our salvation.
It’s very easy to give God what’s “left over” in our lives. We can almost assume that God will be ok with whatever we offer, or that it doesn’t really matter because he loves us unconditionally. It’s true – God does love you unconditionally! But which gift says we love him back – the best of what we have, which is the gift of ourselves, or the gift of whatever is left over after we’ve had our fill?
O God, be pleased to look upon the gift of ourselves, imperfect as we are, with a serene and kindly countenance, and accept it, as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel.