King Ahaz of Judah is in trouble. Big trouble! It’s the late 8th century BCE. Syria and Israel have formed a coalition against Assyria. They invite Judah to join them. Ahaz has no quarrel with Assyria and he doesn’t want to start one. So, he refuses Syria’s and Israel’s offer. They, in turn, declare war on Judah, seeking to replace Ahaz with a cooperative royal ally. Ahaz is terrified.
Enter the prophet Isaiah, declaring, “Fear not.” Syria and Israel will not prevail. Then, seeking to reassure Ahaz, Isaiah says, “Ask God for a sign.” Ahaz, with the pretense of pious humility, declines. Nevertheless, a sign is given. A young woman will bear a son named Immanuel, meaning “God is with us.”
What did this sign, this birth of Immanuel mean? “God is with us” was no promise that Ahaz and Judah wouldn’t suffer. Indeed, all – Syria, Israel, and Judah – fell to Assyria.
The sign, therefore, was ambiguous. Still, a newborn child, the first fruit of a new generation, though unable to led an army in war, bore the promise of new possibilities.
Joseph was in trouble. Big trouble! Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant and, doubtless, by all earthly estimations, adulterous. According to the law, Joseph could have accused her, subjecting her to a trial.(1) But he, “being righteous, unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
Enter an angel, declaring, “Fear not.” Mary’s child, whose origin is heavenly, shall be named Jesus, meaning “God saves.”
What did this sign, this birth of Jesus mean? “God saves” was no promise that the people wouldn’t suffer. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, King Herod, hearing the news of one born “king of the Jews,” fearfully furious, ordered the massacre of the Bethlehem infants. (2)
The sign, therefore, was ambiguous. Still, a newborn child, the first fruit of a new generation, though unable to answer difficult questions of moral choice, bore the promise of new possibilities.
At times, we look for signs. Times of uncertainty. Times of anxiety.
Perhaps involving our relationships when things aren’t well. Give me a sign that my spouse or significant other, parent or child, relative or friend sees the light of what I’ve been saying for years or that I may see more clearly my part in those places where we are “stuck.”
Or involving our financial well-being when we’ve lost a job or when resources for the care of aged loved ones run low, run out or when a stagnant economy is a barrier to the fulfillment of long-established, long-invested plans for the future. Give me a sign of a new way or to clarify my choices or to signal a turnaround is near.
Or involving health, ours and those we love; living through the chances and changes of aging and illness or surgery and recovery and adjusting to our body’s new normal.
Or involving our domestic stability, especially in this day of political disharmony, hostility. Give us a sign that our national unity somehow on some soon day will be restored.
At times, we look for signs, which always are inherently ambiguous. Capable of being read, misread, or unread.
Back to Ahaz and Joseph. The sign of the birth of a child was ambiguous. In each case, satisfying no immediate need. Nevertheless, though the is-ness, the existence of a child is now, the fullness, the potential of the child always is yet to be.
Therefore, a fair, faithful interpretation of a sign, paradoxically, clearly rests in our ability to hold in tension our living in this moment as wisely as we can and our keeping watch on the horizon for what will come. To see in this moment the is-ness of now and to recognize that all that is now is not and cannot be what will be.
Seeing what is and envisioning what might be is an act of hope. And hope is what a sign, however ambiguous, means.
(1) See Numbers 5.11-29
(2) Matthew 2.13-18
Isaiah warning King Ahaz (Isaiah 7.4), artist unknown. Note: The scene depicts Isaiah 7.3-4: The Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field, and say to him, ‘Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint.’”
The angel appears to Joseph (c. 1645), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)
Massacre of the Innocents (1824), Léon Cogniet (1794-1880). Note: I favor this image of this horrific biblical story, for, in its artistic restraint absent in many renderings (e.g., Marcantonio Raimondi, c. 1510, Jacopo Tintoretto, c. 1580, Peter Paul Rubens, 1611, Gustave Doré, 1865), it suggests rather than depicts the massacre. The image of the mother is poignant and powerful; her bare head and feet, signs of vulnerability and though protecting her infant with her body, they remain cornered, their doom sure.