I must admit being a little leery of persons who see signs of divine intervention at every turn. Whether it be an open parking space, a favorite team’s victory, or finding the last toy on the shelf (the perfect gift for which you were looking), some see in this occurrence a sign of God’s favor and a confirmation that “it was meant to be.” Is God or the devil in the details? Both, or neither?
While I do not want to gainsay God’s intimate knowledge of us, I wonder if what some claim as signs is so far beneath God’s cosmic concerns as to be ludicrous. These supposed signs are usually for personal aggrandizement and offer little to the common good. They are claimed by the superficially pious to reinforce their own sense of entitlement.
How can we discern if something is a sign from God? The Bible is replete with signs and wonders, yet how to perceive the working of the divine is notoriously vexed. At times, God seemingly invites mortals to put the Holy One to the test; at other times, there is stern warning against such a gambit. In the wilderness temptations, Jesus is averse to demanding a sign, even when it might have relieved his intense suffering.
In the lectionary reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Isaiah 7:10-16), the Lord prompts Ahaz, heir to the throne of Judah, to ask for a sign, which he declines. Was it because of lack of faith or true piety? We really do not know. The prophet then declares that God will give a sign anyway, a child to be named Immanuel. The birth of this one will indicate a new beginning for the people of covenant. The identity of this child is wrapped in mystery yet symbolizes God’s desire to be with and for God’s own.
We will hear an echo of this text in the angelic pronouncement to the shepherds: “This will be a sign for you, you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). As they made their way toward the site of the nativity, they must have wondered if the heavenly display was a little over the top. After all, this was just another baby born to poor parents in an occupied land.
Divine signs hold a measure of ambiguity. In humility, God works through simple and ostensibly weak means to accomplish holy purposes. What is more vulnerable and dependent than a newborn? Time after time in the Bible, a coming child is the sign of God’s continuing forbearance with wayward humanity.
The child as sign displaces regnant notions of power. We experience this when we see the small child washed up on the beach, a casualty of his refugee family trying to escape bloodshed. When we witness the traumatized little boy, Omran, in Aleppo, his visage is a horrific reminder of all that is wrong in our world. More than protracted high-level diplomatic engagement, these depictions demand compassionate action.
The child as sign also portends a hopeful future. A child will see beyond the horizon of his or her elders; a child may achieve what forebears could not. So we invest in the coming generations, believing that they might live with a more justice-driven spirituality that is perceptive to God’s nearness.
The promise of the child signals where we are to look for God’s work. God usually works in the small, hidden and forgotten aspects of human living. God’s visitation to Mary, only a little beyond childhood herself, suggests that the lowly ones are “fitting vehicles to bear the divine,” as H. Wheeler Robinson suggests. The capacity for wonder, lack of cynicism and straightforward interrogation of the situation (Mary did ask, “How can this be?”) are the ingredients God welcomes when pursuing holy work.
God becomes small, and when God is a child, the world resounds with new hope. The refrain from Brian Wren’s lovely carol offers this description:
When God is a child there’s joy in our song.
The last shall be first and the weak shall be strong, and none shall be afraid.
The coming of Christ offers a different way to experience God, this broken creation, and our own unrequited holy longing. Fear can ebb, and we can trust that God intends to make all things new. Faithful to the promises of old, the child is a sign of God’s vulnerable, yet powerful nearness.
Thus, we sing with the multitude of the heaven host:
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those with whom is God pleased.