15 October 2012

Unnecessary Signs

St. Teresa of Jesus
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Last night, up for the second time, I was shown a truth about my world I had never thought to question. There just about three feet from the floor, hovering in mid-air, is a small glowing object. I stare for a moment, without my glasses, in the dark, and think for just a second that perhaps the Lord has sent an angel to tell me something amazing. As I contemplate this greenish-yellow glow, thinking about revelations, dreams, and prophecies, I am suddenly struck by the truth of what I am seeing, but there it is, as plain as an October moon, and I realize with a nearly blinding clarity: my toothbrush glows in the dark! Then, just being me, the question arises: why would anyone think to make toothbrushes glow in the dark? Stumbling back to bed, I chuckle myself to sleep wondering what we would look like if our teeth glowed in the dark.*

Strictly speaking, my “vision” of the glowing toothbrush was a discovery not a revelation. Its discovery was accidental and has no meaning beyond what I can give it in a homily about seeking after signs of God’s presence. As a divine sign my glowing toothbrush fails what we can call here the “From Test;” that is, my toothbrush shining in the darkness on the sink cannot be said to be “from” God. We cannot say that a glowing toothbrush made by a creature reveals much about God. Signs point the way and make present that which they signify. Divine signs point the way to God and make His presence knowable to those who desire to know Him. 

The crowds are understandably both curious and worried about Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God. They approach him and make a reasonable request for a sign. Traditionally, those claiming to be “sent from God” provide signs that point to God’s presence and make Him knowable. Those in the crowds are likely pious and certainly curious, and therefore understandably seek some indication from this rabble-rousing preacher that he is who he claims to be. Show us a sign. Jesus’ response is unexpected and harsh: “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it…” We have to wonder why Jesus is being so stubborn. We know he is capable of miraculous deeds. Why not show these folks what they need to see? 

Jesus says that no sign will be given to them “except the sign of Jonah.” Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and nights, so the Son of Man will be “in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” Jonah is expelled from the whale and goes on to preach repentance to the decadent citizens of Nineveh. They repent and return to God’s favor. So Jesus too, expelled from the grave and risen from the dead, will be a sign to the crowds and a sign to us that Jesus is indeed who he claims to be. Jesus goes on to add that on the day of judgment, “the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, b/c they repented at the preaching of Jonah…” Needing no other sign than the earnest preaching of an honest prophet, the citizens of Nineveh return to God. 

Here we are in the second decade of the 21st century, can we be counted an “evil and unfaithful generation” seeking after signs? What signs do we seek? Crying statues? Marian apparitions? Bleeding Hosts? Yes, all of these and many more. But do we need these signs? We do not. We have a magisterial Church, her sacraments, a divine guarantee against defeat, and pews packed with priests, prophets, and kings. All of these speak with one voice to say what is good and what the Lord requires: “Only to do the right and love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

*I should've noted earlier:  this incident is true. . .but it happened back in 2006 when I first preached this homily.

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  1. Thanks for this post, Fr.

    I often wonder about why Jesus seemed so harsh in this part of the Gospel. I wonder if He knew that their hearts were closed and any additional miracle would not have made any difference. It sorta reminds me of the another part in the Gospel where Jesus talks about the rich man who goes to Hell after ignoring the poor man on his door stoop. The rich man now inb Gehenna asks the poor man now in the bosom of abraham to go to his brothers to warn them. The answer is that if you won't listen to the prophets, why would they listen now? I mean, how many examples and signs do people really need.

    Years back my younger son had a hard time understanding why there couldnt and wouldnt be more prohphets after Jesus. He was disappointed.

  2. I just keep laughing, chuckling, etc. when I read this, so can't really give a good comment - but when I read/prayed the Gospel this morning, something similar to your final paragraph came to my mind. And thanks for the laugh - laughing is always good :-).

    1. It got a laugh at both Masses today. I don't usually go for funny stuff b/c it can be a crutch.

    2. And I don't usually like funny stuff b/c it often detracts from the message, BUT there are times when funny is good. This was good :-).