Friday of the Third Week of Advent
Three salient elements stand out in today’s readings: messengers, messages, and signs. The first reading eavesdrops on a confrontation between Isaiah the prophet and Ahaz, king of Judah, concerning the looming threat of a military strike from the north. We cherish Isaiah’s masterful messianic imagery, but he could be blunt in getting a point across: he named one son Shear-Jashub (“A remnant shall return”), another Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (“quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil”). Isaiah offers a sign—any sign Ahaz requests—as proof of God’s pledge to keep Judah safe if only Ahaz places his trust in God rather than a political alliance. On the face of it, Ahaz responds piously, much as Jesus would later say, “Don’t put your God to the test.” In fact, Ahaz demurs because he has already made up his mind to seek Assyrian protection. Isaiah chastises Ahaz and gives him a sign regardless.
In the Christian imagination that sign of Emmanuel finds fulfillment in Luke’s account of the Annunciation. This time the messenger bears divine tidings not so much unwelcome as unexpected. Again the implicit imperative is reliance on God’s redeeming power. Like Ahaz, Mary risks a loss in status should she embrace God’s offer (her good name, her looming marriage) and she too assesses the practical dimensions of the situation (“I have no relations with a man”). But in the end, her egoless response opens wide her life to “let the Lord enter,” and the ramifications of her choice far exceed the sort of security Ahaz sought for Judah.
What might we make this Advent season of the messengers, messages, and signs in our own lives? Discerning what God has to say to us is a notoriously tricky business, and self-deception and bullheaded certainty are common pitfalls. So we might seek to be particularly attentive to the voices of wisdom and sound counsel in our lives (whether or not they come with an obvious divine stamp of approval), especially those who challenge our comfortable assumptions. I think of times I’ve asked a trusted confidante for advice, only to hear my “inner narrator” reflexively harrumph, “Wrong answer!” when the response isn’t what I want to hear. If the Bible’s account of God’s love affair with humanity teaches us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. How can we range past the fences of our imaginations and trust that God will work wonders in our lives well beyond what we can conceive on our own? Like Mary, we’re called to relinquish our ego, our self-certitude, and become vessels through which flows God’s promise of salvation.
“Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God.” ANY sign. Perhaps it’s less a matter of some singular phenomenon that dispels any doubts, and more about training our eyes to attend to the “signs of the times,” to take in the welcome and the unwelcome, the exquisite and the pitiful, and seek the traces of God’s loving fingers all around us. In so doing, we may recognize that God’s holy place is right here in our midst, that our lives even now are replete with blessings from the Lord.
Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA)