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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

Advent Homily 

Year C

Isaiah 7:10-16

by Daniel Haynes

Last year for my Advent sermon, I spoke about the forgotten tradition of fasting during the Advent season and the importance of hoping for the resurrection of the body. This year I would like to reflect with you on how the hope and promise of Christ’s coming in the flesh changes our theological perception of Holy Scripture and the world around us.

But first, I would like to rock out a little. I promise it will not be enough to desecrate the nave but enough to get the head a rockin.

[play Five Man Electric Band “Signs”, first verse and chorus]

While the Five Man Electrical Band is kind of sticking-it-to-the-man in this classic rock song, they do point out an interesting aspect of our human world: “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign”–humans think, speak, and write in language. Now, sometimes we use our language to judge freaky long-haired people, and sometimes we use it to exalt the beauty of the infinite, but still it is a uniquely human enterprise. There are several species of apes, dolphins, and parrots who can understand human language, but only humans have the capacity of imagination, of figurative thinking, which allows us to envision meaning in and beyond signs. My son Alexander just turned two, and he is really starting to use imaginative play. I can see the power of abstraction and creativity in his big blue eyes when he yells, “daddy, quick, hide, hide, hide!”, and we proceed to duck behind the living room sofa to avoid, well, something.

I recently watched a wonderful documentary on Koko, a gorilla famous for knowing over 1,000 ASL signs and recognizing over 2,000 English words. Though she can communicate things such as her desire to have a baby, and even her ability to combine signs to create new ones (example of “ring,” pet cat that she picked out and named “All Ball,” and friend Michael), she doesn’t necessarily look at a beautiful sunset and imagine a supremely good God offering that gift of beauty, which we can then reflect in our own lives in how we love one another and worship the Creator corporately.

French prehistorian Jean Clottes, who discovered the famous Chauvet cave containing some of the oldest human paintings in the world, made the observation that modern humans should not be called homo sapiens, the man who knows. Instead, he says that modern humans should be referred to as homo spiritualis, the man of the spirit. What he means by this is that knowing things and making things is something that many animals have the ability to do, but to depict a live action scene of bison running, as the mysterious painter of the Chauvet cave some 30,000 years ago, or to see the power of nature being transferred through a bear skull totem, that is the realm of the spirit, the imagination, and the deep meaning of signs.

Christianity is no stranger to homo spiritualis, as our passage today from the book of Isaiah indicates: “Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

There was a little bit of political intrigue going on in the early 8th century BCE. King Pekah of Israel (the northern kingdom) and king Rezin of Aram (modern day Syria) were in cahoots with one another trying to take over the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem was located. Tiglath Pileser III of Assyria was paid tribute by king Ahaz to take care of the Pekah-Rezin problem, and Pileser delivered on the deal by annexing Aram and exiling the northern kingdom of Israel. The caveat was that Judah became a vassal state of Assyria.

So, Isaiah was prophesying against selling out Judah to Assyria by delivering the oracle that king Ahaz would see a sign of a baby born to a young woman, and before he knows good from evil, the two trouble kingdoms will be laid waste. This “sign” was an immediate historical one because Isaiah’s prophecy was intended to be fulfilled in his lifetime. It also addressed a real political and theological crisis in the southern kingdom.   

Early Christians read the “sign” of the Isaiah seven passage and connected it figuratively and theologically to Jesus. An angel of Lord, perhaps Gabriel, visits Joseph in Matthew chapter one, and the angel encourages him to take Mary as his wife for “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The divine herald cites Isaiah seven as supporting evidence. Now the Hebrew word almah always meant at the time young maiden or a woman who had not had a child yet; it only meant virgin in New Testament times when St. Matthew used the Greek word parthenos, which generally indicated virginity.

Biblical scholars have had a lot of heated debate over the parsing of Hebrew and Greek words, but I think the more interesting discussion is how signs and prophecies have a certain duality about them. They can point to immediate historical situations, and they can point to something beyond themselves, as I imagine unbeknownst to Isaiah at the time of his prophecy to Ahaz. How does this work?

St. Augustine helps us to make sense of this duality of signs in his work On Christian Doctrine. First, he says, we must differentiate between things and signs. There are merely “things,” such as wood, stones and cattle, things that are also signs, such as the snake wrapped pole that Moses raised in the Israelites camp to cure those bitten by snakes, and there are signs that are, well, just signs, such as words, which represents or points to things. When my son Alexander asks for “milk,” he does not mean he wants the word milk; he wants the white creamy liquid that we call milk.

The New Testament writers, and in our Gospel passage today the angel of the Lord, reflected back on Isaiah’s prophecy to king Ahaz and saw within its message a figurative meaning pointing beyond the 8th century BC to the 1st century AD. For sure, Isaiah’s prophecy described a real woman living during that time period who would bear a son, but that child also was a “sign” pointing to the deliverance of Judah from their enemies. Even more than this, the child was a sign or a type of Christ in the New Testament.

As Christians, reading the Scriptures and reading the world, we must use the literal sense as our foundation, but we must also be open to the figurative sense, what the Church Fathers called the spiritual sense. You may ask how do we read the Bible and the world in a spiritual and theological manner. St. Augustine offers some further assistance to this dilemma.

In the same book, On Christian Doctrine, the great Doctor of the Church first describes how we are to use “things” before we can learn to read “signs.” With things, there is a great difference between use (uti) and enjoyment (frui). “For to enjoy a thing is to rest with satisfaction in it for its own sake. To use, on the other hand, is to employ whatever means are at one's disposal to obtain what one desires, if it is a proper object of desire; for an unlawful use ought rather to be called an abuse.” Augustine then offers the reader an allegory. Suppose you are far far away from your homeland and could not be happy until you returned home. On the journey back you start to enjoy the pleasures of the journey: the landscapes; the music; the people; and the food. These distractions keep you from really desiring to return to your homeland, the one true place that will make you happy and whole. The pleasures of our journey through this world are loved and enjoyed only for themselves instead of being used for the ultimate goal of finding our true home and rest in the Holy Trinity, whom Augustine argues is the only object of true enjoyment because only the Trinity can be enjoyed purely as an end in itself. Centuries later the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard adds in a prayer:

Father in Heaven, what are we without you?
What is all that we know, vast accumulation though it be,
But a chipped fragment if we do not know you?
What is all our striving?
Could it ever encompass a world,
But a half-finished work
If we do not know you?
You, the One who is one thing and who is all.

In order to use things properly and interpret signs theologically, Augustine says we must purify ourselves of sin, ingrain in ourselves virtues and wisdom, and see the love of God and our neighbors, for God’s sake, as the foundation of everything we do. Jesus Christ is the pattern for how we can find our way home and read the signs of how to get there: “But of this we should have been wholly incapable, had not Wisdom condescended to adapt Himself to our weakness, and to show us a pattern of holy life in the form of our own humanity. Yet, since we when we come to Him do wisely, He when He came to us was considered by proud men to have done very foolishly. And since we when we come to Him become strong, He when He came to us was looked upon as weak. But "the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men." And thus, though Wisdom was Himself our home, He made Himself also the way by which we should reach our home…In what way did He come but this, "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us"...Further, when we are on the way, and that not a way that lies through space, but through a change of affections, and one which the guilt of our past sins like a hedge of thorns barred against us, what could He, who was willing to lay Himself down as the way by which we should return, do that would be still gracious and more merciful, except to forgive us all our sins, and by being crucified for us to remove the stern decrees that barred the door against our return?”

Augustine goes on to say that in the interpretation of Scripture, and I would add the signs of God that we see in the natural world as well, even signs that are “unknown” or “obscure,” as he distinguishes in Book Two, the building up of love must be present. Although an interpreter might mess up the meaning, if they are doing it with the goal of loving God and neighbor, they will still end up at the right destination because God is ultimately the captain steering the ship. Augustine says it is like a person who leaves the high road for the lower winding one, yet still reaches the final destination.

Despite errors in the interpretation of the signs of Scripture, Augustine reminds us not to lose faith: “And then, if faith totter, love itself will grow cold. For if a man has fallen from faith, he must necessarily also fall from love; for he cannot love what he does not believe to exist. But if he both believes and loves, then through good works, and through diligent attention to the precepts of morality, he comes to hope also that he shall attain the object of his love. And so these are the three things to which all knowledge and all prophecy are subservient: faith, hope, love.”

To be able, then, to read the signs of God in our own lives theologically, we must have faith, hope, and love grounded in a pure heart that seeks God as our homeland. Further, we need to use and enjoy “things” as they are loved and held in the bosom of the Holy Trinity. Further still, we need to be in a state of openness with a theological imagination to read Biblical and natural “signs” as pointing to the incarnation of God in the world. Sometimes the signs will be clear, such as the goodness of God enjoyed in the embrace of a loved one or the accounts in the Gospels of Jesus rising from the dead, and sometimes the signs will be cloudy with a chance of meatballs, such as the prophet Ezekiel’s inaugural vision of the four creatures where they moved as a wheel within a wheel. What the what?

In either case, Christ is the pattern and the map key to our journey back to our homeland in God. He is the one who transforms our human imagination to correctly read the signs and see the revelation of God in the wondrous gifts of Scripture, the world, and our own inner being. Advent is a season of hope and a state of watchfulness for the coming of Christ. If we read the signs of God as the world reads them, then we are left only with “things,” which will not fill our hearts and give us rest. We can make “things” out of anything, including family, friends, and even the Bible. But, if we read the signs God has given us in his Word and in his world with the view towards Christ and love our neighbors, then we will do honor to the amazing divine gift that is homo spiritualis.  

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