Saturday of the Third Week of Advent
Signs play a major role in God’s dealings with us. Biblical history makes this abundantly clear, as the unfolding of the Christmas story that we are about to recall will remind us the next few days. Were it not for the angels acting as signs attracting the attention of the shepherds out in the fields with their flocks, the shepherds would not have known of the birth of the infant nearby. And it was the sign of a star in the sky that caught the attention of the wise men in the east, leading them to the place where the child lay, so that they could offer Him gifts. And earlier on it was Joseph’s dream acting as a sign leading Joseph to take Mary as his wife, despite his initial misgivings. Before it was all over, Joseph would become adept at interpreting dreams as signs of God’s interventions in his life.
Signs have been major players in God’s dealings with us, across the centuries. They appear in the biblical readings we hear today. When the prophet Zephaniah addresses the people of Jerusalem assuring them of their safety, urging them to be joyful because their enemies have been repulsed, he emerges as a sign from God alerting them to God’s action on their behalf. And Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, offers her hospitality upon her arrival, and sings a song of joy as she greets her pregnant kinfolk by understanding the sign of Mary’s pregnancy as a visit from her Lord. Elizabeth realized this was no ordinary pregnancy by interpreting a sign within her own pregnancy.
Signs play an important role in God’s dealings with us. He finds them helpful in communicating with us, and they facilitate our association with God, provided we are able to interpret or decode His signs. Biblical history is full of signs, calling, as they do, for interplay between God the signer and us the interpreters. Jesus frequently encountered those seeking a sign from Him that would convince them of His Messianic claims: "An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet." (Mt. 12.39) "Others, to test Him, asked him for a sign from heaven." (Lk. 11:16)
We use signs among ourselves, which also require interpretation in order to be understood. Sometimes we refer to such signs as codes, especially when they are intended for only a restricted group of people. During WWII American military forces utilized Native American languages, in both major theaters of war. A group of 24 Navajos handled telephone communications, using voice codes in their native tongue, between the Air Command in the Solomon Islands and various airfields in the region, and these codes proved difficult to decode and understand. Enemy forces had to find a way of decoding a strange language. And when God uses signs in our regard, we too need to decode the message, and this happens only by faith.
We still honor signs in God’s dealings with us, such as the sacraments. We have regard sacraments as "signs" of grace instituted by Christ and committed to the church. Sacramental signs are in continuity with those so frequently mentioned in the scriptures. Like so many signs, they too have to be decoded in order to be appreciated, and it is only faith that enables us to do this, just as it was faith that enabled Elizabeth to interpret the import of Mary’s pregnancy. Before this shortest day of the calendar year draws to a close, let us seek the fullness of faith to interpret the events of life in continuity with the whole history of God’s interventions in human life.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.