20 February 2013

You need faith to read the signs

NB.  After the fifth phone interruption, I just gave up on today's homily and edited an older one. I'm getting even crankier in my dotage.

1st Week of Lent (W)
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

I was lost in Nice, France. I had decided to take a bus from Villefranche to Nice. When it was time to head back to the cruise ship (where I served as chaplain), I took a bus to the station and waited for the transfer back to Villefranche. And I waited and I waited. Three or four buses stopped but none was mine. I asked a woman at the station how to get back to Villefranche. I should say, I mimed and shouted and grunted and wildly gestured b/c at the time I didn't speak or read French. The poor woman energetically responded to my desperation with what I can only assume was beautiful French. Let’s just say, her gestures were impressive! She repeatedly pointed to the signs on the bus stop and the signs on the street corners and the signs on the many construction barriers along the road. No good. I wandered the Garibaldi area of Nice for an hour or so—illiterate and lost. Finally, I found my bus and made it back to the ship in time. The moral of the story? All the signs in the world will do you no good if you can’t read them. 

Jesus says that no signs will be given to this unfaithful generation. Why is he being so mean about a request for a sign of his identity and power? Why is he being so stubborn all of a sudden?

There are at least two ways of interpreting Jesus’ signs. First, they can be seen as magical events, mysterious tricks that tickle the imagination and satisfy some sort of basic human need for the mystical. Second, the signs can be seen as helps, as divine assistance for and confirmation of our initial trust in Jesus’ word that he is who he says he is. Signs as magical tricks have to be repeated, done again and again, and rarely if ever do they establish anything resembling faith in the human heart. Signs as help for our trust in Jesus’ word require faith first. They cannot confirm in us what does not yet exist in us. 

Looking out over the crowd, Jesus knows that those clamoring for a sign are really clamoring for a circus trick. They will not believe even if he stops the sun and calls angels by the thousands. The only sign he will give them is his death, his three day stay in the grave, and his resurrection. The sign of Jonah. They will either read this sign as a trick, or it will confirm their faith. If they fail to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, they will be condemned by the queen of the south and the Ninevites at the judgment. She came looking for the wisdom of Solomon not knowing that the Messiah had come. How could she? No one believed, so no one witnessed. The Ninevites repented at the sign of Jonah. They believed and were confirmed in their faith. They will judge this evil generation for its stubbornness and willful ignorance. Christ risen from the tomb three days later is a greater sign than Jonah’s three day stay in the belly of the fish. 

Do you clamor after signs? Look for indications that your faith in Christ is justified? Are we running after apparitions or miraculous events or private revelations or internet prophecies to confirm what we already know to be true? Will we be like the Ninevites who hear the Word preached and repent? Or will we be like those of the evil generation and chase after signs to have confirmed what we do not believe in the first place? We are set free in Christ. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. The greatest sign of Christ’s fidelity to us—greater than Jonah and Solomon—is the Christian living a holy life of sacrificial witness and service. This is a sign easily read and universally understood. No magic. No tricks. No stage. No drama. Just charity in action—the surest sign that Christ is among his people.

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  1. good thing that you didnt see Bill Engvall with them signs!!!
    I did enjoy reading all of your homilies, just havent been able to post a comment or have the chance to do so. so apologies are in order.
    Pax et bonum!

  2. Shall I comment on the above homily, or the one you actually preached? :-)

    1. Well, they were sorta the same. . .

    2. Yeah, sorta - kinda like beignets from Seattle and beignets from Cafe du Monde are sorta the same. They're both good, but one's got more flavor and colour and atmosphere!

      Your discussion of "faith is an act of the will" and "faith must come first" and if we have faith we don't need signs, was clear and direct. And I preferred the "Stop it! Just stop it!" from the preached homily, reminding us not to look for signs but to ask God for strength instead - for faith, more/stronger faith. And reminding us that we cannot submit ourselves to the yoke of sin b/c Jesus already freed us from sin. The preached ending was great: we should behave sacrificially in the world in these days, as signs of what we as Catholics are and are meant to be...with the injunction "You be the sign!" marking a wonderful and energetic conclusion, giving each person hearing you a personal and concrete challenge.

      So, sure, sorta the same...and yet, not. The written homily was good, but the preached homily made me smile.

  3. I remember when Boston was building the tunnel known as "The Big Dig." The signs were all confused. Some were never taken down, the directions the detours were sending one in, were wrong, or were true yesterday. The signs were a mess. No one could trust them. They were the but of jokes in cartoons, the radio, TV, newspapers.
    Anyway, Bostonians don't pay attention to signs, anymore.

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