Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 21:25–28, 34–36:

Jesus said to his disciples:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.

“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Yesterday, my wife and I attended a day-long retreat in preparation for the start of advent, along with good friends of ours. The retreat gave us some exposure to new ways of contemplation and prayer, but it also featured a very amusing reflection on one of the most beloved songs of all time: “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The priest, a former professional musician himself, discussed the terrible theology of the song while singing parts of it in the style of famous singers like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and others. We finished the session by singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” as the reworked version of the Disney song.

It was done tongue in cheek, of course. The priest made a point about how secularism ends up borrowing from Christianity while getting everything as wrong as possible, and why Advent — which starts today — gets everything right. Why would we make self-centered wishes to a single ball of gas at a random point of the created universe, he asked, when we can rely on the Creator and His Word to teach us the way to true happiness?

Today’s Gospel didn’t come into the discussion, but it touches on a similar issue. Stars and their predictable patterns in the sky have been seen as signs and as powers in themselves, controlling the characters and fates of people on earth. Whether they be shooting stars or astrology, people have invested much significance into their appearances as powers unto themselves, and have also interpreted them as signs when they turn out to be natural phenomena. Much of that has been itself a form of wish-casting — reverse engineering a natural occurrence into a sign of something we either greatly desire or greatly fear, for our own purposes. We see that happen to present day, where the self-deceived and/or charlatans believe they have unlocked the Gospel to predict the precise time of the end of the world.

But, one might say, the Advent story itself has a star that acts as a sign. That’s true, but there is a difference between the Star of Bethlehem and the way that signs are interpreted in other ways. The Star of Bethlehem was not acting on its own accord, bestowing gifts or directing the fates of people with its own will. The events of this astronomical event are reproducible through the use of the laws of celestial mechanics (as done in Stephen Vidano’s documentary The Star of Bethlehem) and therefore explicable as an inevitable part of creation.

No one wished upon the Star of Bethlehem to make the Messiah appear. The Star itself didn’t grant the Messiah as a wish. Jesus didn’t need the Star to be born; it heralded His birth, not the other way around. If one believes Vidano’s compelling recreation of the astronomical events, the Star of Bethlehem would have been a sign woven into creation from its beginning, and revealed to the few who recognized it by means of education, wisdom, and investigation. The One who could weave such a sign into creation would have been the Creator Himself, who also inspired the prophets to provide teachings that would have explained the meaning of this sign for those wise enough to discern it.

And so we return to today’s Gospel, where Jesus instructs his disciples on the signs that will immediately precede His return. At the end when He comes back in judgment, Jesus tells them, there will be plenty of signs pointing to that end. But what does Jesus tell his disciples to do about it? Nothing except to “stand erect and raise your heads” as their redemption comes. He doesn’t tell the disciples to gather people on a mountaintop or to sell all their worldly goods, nor does He suggest that they do anything to avoid that judgment.

Instead, Christ commands them to keep on keeping on, so to speak. The signs only provide a heads-up, not a sudden call to conversion. “Be vigilant at all times,” Christ warns, not just when the signs appear. They are to follow His teachings and refrain from the materialism that afflicts humanity through its original sin and arrogance, the same way we are to live our lives every day.

The signs in this case aren’t the point; His return and the certainty of it are all that matters. In fact, Jesus implies strongly in this passage that those not living in His teachings won’t recognize the signs for what they are anyway. Only those already in attuned to Christ’s teachings will have the wisdom to understand what these events mean. They will already have put their trust in the Lord to see them through the tribulation.

This gets at the core of the need to see signs everywhere. It hearkens back to our original sin of wanting to control everything rather than trusting in the Lord. Demands for signs and miracles aim to alleviate ourselves from the obligation to have faith, and also to give us time to indulge ourselves and our sinful tendencies before we must straighten up and fly right, so to speak. We expect salvation on our own terms and through our own merits rather than acknowledge the Lord’s majesty and justice as far greater than our own. That is the opposite of faith and trust.

As the priest reminded us yesterday, we do not need to wish upon flaming gas bags thousands of light years away for our happiness, nor can we rely on our own merits. We only need to imagine the unbound love and mercy of Christ and take His teaching truly into our hearts.

But don’t get me started on “Imagine.” I daresay the priest might have a few words about that song, too.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

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