King Ahaz of Judah is in trouble. In the late 8th century BCE, Syria and Israel formed a coalition against Assyria, inviting Judah to join them. Ahaz, having no quarrel with Assyria and not wanting to start one, refused. Syria and Israel declared war on Judah, seeking to replace Ahaz with a cooperative royal ally.
Ahaz, as king, is the symbol of national confidence that God will defend the divinely established throne. Nevertheless, he is terrified: “The heart of Ahaz and his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”
Enter the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming, “Fear not,” for Syria’s and Israel’s plans will not prosper. Then, addressing Ahaz’s need for assurance, Isaiah encouraged the king, “Ask God for a sign.” Amazingly, Ahaz, with the pretense of pious humility, declined the divine offer. Nevertheless, a sign was given. A young woman would 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 king and nation would be sheltered from harm. Indeed, before the child reached the age of reason, knowing “how to refuse evil and choose good”, Syria, Israel and Judah would be defeated. The sign, therefore, was ambiguous. Still, as a first fruit of a new generation, a newborn child, though unable to lead an army in a season of war, signaled new possibilities.
Joseph was in trouble. Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant and doubtless adulterous. Observing the law, Joseph could have accused Mary, subjecting her to a trial. “Being a righteous man,” Joseph, “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” But “just when he resolved to do this” enter an angel, proclaiming, “Fear not.” Mary’s child, whose origins are 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 would be spared from harm. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, King Herod’s fear and fury at hearing the news of one born “king of the Jews” led to the massacre of the infants of Bethlehem.
And today, the children of Aleppo, the latest in history’s egregiously long list of innocents, suffer at the dignity-defying, death-dealing hands of warring, malevolent rulers and powers!
The sign, therefore, was ambiguous. Still, as a first fruit of a new generation, a newborn child, though unable to answer difficult questions of moral choice, signaled 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, partner, 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, my role 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 our movement toward the fulfillment of long established, long invested plans for the future decelerates to the largo tempo of a vacillating economy. 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 daily chances and changes of aging and illness or surgery and recovery and adjusting to our body’s new normal…
Or involving national security, whether our sense of peace with a new administration or in relation to America’s role in all the raging wars of this world. Give us a sign that sharpens the line between justice and vengeance, between increased safety and the loss of personal liberty, between self-defense and self-destruction that we will not plant the seeds of radicalized retaliation for generations to come.
At times, we look for signs, which, however, alway are inherently ambiguous; capable of being read, re-read, misread, or unread.
Looking again at the scripture, the sign of the birth of a child is the striking similitude of the prophetic pronouncement to Ahaz and the angelic announcement to Joseph. Either is ambiguous. Neither satisfied the immediate need. Nevertheless, the image of a child, whose is-ness, beingness is now, but whose fullness of being is yet to be alway points to tomorrow.
A fair, faithful interpretation of a sign, paradoxically, clearly rests in our ability and willingness 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 this moment as the is-ness of now and to recognize that all that is now is not, cannot be what will be…to give birth today in this moment to an idea, a dream, a vision and to nurture it for a larger life tomorrow.
Seeing what is and envisioning also what might be is an act of hope. And hope is what a sign, however ambiguous, means.
Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)
The Prophet Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902)
The angel appears to Joseph (c. 1645), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)
Massacre of the Innocents (Le Massacre des Innocents) (1824), Léon Cogniet (1794-1880), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes. 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 are signs of vulnerability and though she protects her infant with her body, as they remain cornered, their doom is sure.
 In addition to Isaiah 7.10-16, all references to the Ahaz story are found in Isaiah 7.
 In addition to Matthew 1.18-25, all references to the Mary-Joseph story are found in Matthew 1.
 See Numbers 5.11-29
 Matthew 2.13-18