Signs and Symbols – Br. Curtis Almquist

curtis4The Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writes that:

Earth is crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God…1

Ms. Browning is here using sacramental language to describe the experience of life. A sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace. To understand life sacramentally is to apprehend the whole of creation as a window to God, whether it be a simple bush — the burning bush — or some other element of life, or another human being, created in the very image of God. Every thing in life has the potential of being revelatory. In the beginning, the Book of Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth, and God saw that it was good.”2 The original blessing. The language of original blessing is sometimes absconded by the language of “original sin,” with Adam and Eve’s claiming what was not there’s to have in Eden, and thereafter hangs a curse on creation. We see in Jesus a reclaiming or renaming of God’s original blessing on the created order. In Jesus, God becomes incarnate, that is, God becomes fully human, as human as you and I are. And Jesus reveals to us the God whom he calls “Father.” Jesus actually doesn’t say, “Father.” He uses the tender term, “Papa.” Jesus’ saying in the Gospel according to John: “if you have seen me, you have seen my Papa.”3 Jesus changes our image of God. And Jesus immerses himself in life — eating and drinking, walking, and working, and weeping, and resting, touching and feeling, and pointing to the very ordinary stuff of life as being revelatory: revelatory of what life is to be and of who he is to be for us.

How do you picture Jesus? Imagine Jesus the way he symbolically describes himself: I am the good shepherd; I am the vine; I am gate; I am the door; I am the bread of life; I am the living water; I am the light; I am like a mother hen. And Jesus teaches by telling stories — parables — using metaphors and similes drawn from the stuff of life, very ordinary activities which take on a symbolic importance: a sower goes out to sow; a shepherd searches for lost sheep; a widow searches for a lost coin; a farmer’s son comes to collect his father’s produce; a prodigal son goes to spend his father’s inheritance; a merchant searches for fine pearls; a widow gives a mite; a fisherman casts a net; a vineyard owner prunes his grape vines; a wedding guest drinks the good wine. And Jesus sees symbolic truth in the normal play of life: “look at the birds of the air,” “consider the lilies of the field”; learn from the mustard seed, the fig tree, the grape vine, the olive branch; consider the bridegroom and his wedding party. And Jesus says, “you are the light of the world,” “you are the salt of the earth.” Jesus also has this one-liner: “you have heard it said, but I say,” and what he says, consistently, is that to the least or lost or last, the last person you might imagine on this earth, there is a worthy channel of revelation: to a child, a thief, a tax collector, a prostitute, a shepherd, a poor widow, the lame, the leper, the hungry, the servant, the imprisoned — all as being recipients and agents of God’s revelation.

Jesus was very much immersed in life. I don’t think Jesus was much interested in spiritual things. “Spiritual” is not a word in his vocabulary. Jesus promises, “I have come to give you life, and to give it to you abundantly.”4 He does not say, “I have come to give you abundant spiritual life,” but abundant life, the whole of your life. Living a whole life and a holy life are to be one in-the-same.5 Jesus was not a Greek. The prevailing Greek culture of his day revered erudition, lofty knowledge gleaned only by the intellectually elite: the Gnostics. Quite to the contrary, Jesus grounds God’ s revelation in the material earth, and amongst the common and simple. And so we overhear Jesus praying to the God whom he calls “Father,” “Papa”: “I thank you… because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”6 This is about God’s revelation to us, in the here-and-now, in the simple stuff of earth. Life is sacramental: the outward signs reveal the inward grace. The outward sign of bread and wine at this altar are what they are — real bread from the earth and wine, the fruit of the vine — and yet they are revelatory of more, of Jesus’ real presence. That sacramental principle is a template for life. The whole of life is intended to be like that: sacramental. It is what it is, and yet it is symbolic of something more, a channel of revelation.

In our lesson from the Gospel according to John, we hear of Jesus’ coming to a well because he is thirsty for water. As is a Samaritan woman. This is a problem. Jesus should not be interacting with a Samaritan. Samaritans were impure half-breeds, to be avoided by a faithful and pure Jew such as Jesus. And secondly, this Samaritan is a woman. No woman in first-century Palestine would ever be alone in public, and certainly not interacting with a man who is alone… that is, of course, unless her feigning thirst was actually a ruse to pick up a trick. Only prostitutes would be out and alone at noonday. Surprise — or no surprise — Jesus talks with her. She actually claims she is thirsty for the well water, as is Jesus. And then Jesus speaks of another kind of water, what he calls “living water.” And she is thirsty for that, too. Water takes on a symbolic importance. Jesus tells her where she may find the living water Jesus promises. Where? The “living water” is to be discovered in quite a surprising location. You don’t have to climb a mountain, or travel the sea to find this wellspring of living water. Nor do you have to become someone different than who you are. Jesus says that his “living water will become in [us] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The spring of living water gushing up is within us, within you. And remember, Jesus first gives this promise to a half-breed prostitute to convince his listeners, then and now, that no matter how far you may feel you’ve slinked, this promise is for you.

I invite you to take a few moments to ponder, what would that be for you: living water? This is Jesus’ metaphor: the symbol of living water. Not literal water — Jesus and the Samaritan woman are literally drinking water from this well — but “living water.” It’s a symbol. What is it that you now need, perhaps desperately, to survive and thrive in life? What is it you need to know, be assured of, be relieved of, be helped out of or helped into, to be quenched or quelled, without which you don’t know how you could on? What does Jesus’ promise of “living water” mean for you, now? It’s a promise for you. What is the “living water” you most need?

This could be a very powerful way for you to ponder and pray your life. What signs and symbols have communicated to you deeply? Something you saw or heard or tasted or touched or sensed that somehow broke through to you? Perhaps when your life was crushingly difficult, where you were overwhelmed or felt scared to death or hopeless — think back to the recent past, or go all the way back to your childhood What was it? And what about joy? What has been a sign or symbol for your delighting in life? Something that you saw or heard or tasted or touched or sensed that somehow broke through to you as a wellspring of joy? And who is Jesus to you? He gives us many metaphors to describe who he is? Do one of these metaphors from the Gospel speak to you, or is there some other metaphor, some other image of Jesus that you find compelling? Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “we cannot predetermine how the image of Christ will appear to a person, but must allow the image of Christ to develop in that person as that person needs.” Who is Jesus to you now?

Pay attention to your life, and presume that your life is to be lived sacramentally: recurring outward signs of inward grace. Even the simplest elements of life are laced with meaning on more than one level. God is using the created order as a window, as an icon, through which you can apprehend life in the present and life to come. A symbol is a kind of sign that represents or points to a larger reality.7 It is what it is, but it is also something more. Jesus’ life and ministry was interlaced in every direction with signs and symbols, and that continues in this day, every day.8

1 Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 — 1861).

2 Genesis 1:31.

3 John 14:4-14.

4 John 10:10.

5 Both “holy” and “wholly” have the same etymological root in Old English: hal, meaning hail or whole, and from which comes the English word “health.”

6 Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21.

7 The English word “symbol” comes from the Greek, syn “with, together with,” and the nominative stem of ballein, to throw, i.e., something that is thrust together, something that makes a connection.

8 To shepherds, he spoke symbolically about sheep and tending the flock; to farmers, he spoke about seed and sowing. To vineyard owners, he did not speak about fish. He talked about fish to those who harvested the sea. To vineyard owners he spoke about the vine, the branches, pruning, and fruit bearing. Jesus used specific signs and symbols that would speak to his listeners.


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  1. Rhode on March 8, 2021 at 19:49

    Loved this message and “‘….but must allow the image of Christ to develop in that person as that person needs…’ spoke to me.
    How quickly we give up on people and relationships before anything grows and matures. We are so easily offended. Even by ourselves. Jesus knows we need this living water everyday. He is not turned off when we do not have immediate clarity. Truth and life are in the offered jug. But we just want water. We say “we know the Messiah is coming, and when he appears he will show us all things”…sometimes we need a little longer time at the well or even a few trips to recognize Jesus and His gift.

  2. Clarence A Burley on March 8, 2021 at 16:39

    About the bush: I read this a.m. in scripture about Jonah and his unhappiness with a bush, while God was unhappy with a great city.
    About the water: I have heard that the 17th. century poet, John Suckling, won a prize at Oxford for the best one line iambic pentameter on the miracle at Cana: ” The living water looked his God and blushed.”
    About original sin and Adam and Eve wanting something that wasn’t there’s: It wasn’t their’s either.

  3. Kitty Whitman on March 8, 2021 at 07:15

    Your reminders and insights touch the ordinary and seemingly mundane moments and fire them into the extraordinary! I am so thankful to listen when you speak. Your words reach beyond the page on which you wrote them and have spoken to my life many times. I look at the bookcases in my home which house friends who have also spoken to me across many years, and I am so thankful for how God inspires and continues to speak and remind me daily to “come and see” Him in the ordinary. Yes, each moment of ordinary offers the extraordinary touch of God!
    Kitty W.

  4. Jonathan Hansen on March 8, 2021 at 06:38

    Br.Curtis thank you for helping me get my day and my week started with yet another inspiring story. Gods presence is around us constantly. Being aware of the goodness in this World and being a part of Gods good news gives me good reason to be thankful and motivates me to positive in this troubled World.

  5. Susan Zimmerman on March 1, 2019 at 17:43

    …many experiences of God because God is Infinite…we shall never know God but will constantly be encountering God…an ever learning experience!

    …main symbol for me is the cross…it shows up in so many ways…and after many years asking God why i kept encountering it? …the most powerful enlightening, after several ‘years’ of praying why i was being shown this, was an encounter in one of Thomas Mertons’ book…”…it is a sign of liberation…”, which i knew was the unexpected answer to my prayers! …more recently, i know longer think of just Jesus but now the many others who were also crucified by the Romans…every time i now encounter this symbol i also think of the many unknowns…”now liberated…” (2 experiences that were/are very real to me now)

  6. Jeanne DeFazio on March 1, 2019 at 10:36

    Brother Curtis,
    thanks again! I am taking a class on Hassidic faith. During this time learning how this group of Jewish believers strive to be close to God through religious tradition, life has gone on around me. Some of it good and some not. But the beauty of God as you have said in this devotional is that He presents lessons in life everyday life.

    I met a local Hassidic leader and it was on a particularly difficult day. There had been a murder in the small town in CA where I reside. On that day I looked up into his face and saw a holy light the shekinah glory of God. I thanked Jesus because it was a morning that was challenging. More recently there is a Christian student in that class who shines with the presence of Jesus. On good mornings and bad ones I walk into that class and see Jesus shining though.her. That definitely happened when I worked with Mother Teresa. but this young woman who is not canonized just a student in the class shines so much light of the Lord. Finally I mentioned it to her. I did not say seeing Jesus within you helped me through a challenging time in life because it’s alot to lay off on someone. It was however true that like the water in the dead sea I swam in years ago staying totally afloat, the rivers of living water were flowing out of her to such an extent I finally said something.

    God works through the ordinary. Years ago in a challenging time I found digital images of religious masterpieces and posted them on a board in my room. I looked at the images and the light of God through the artists’ imspiration
    on canvas pulled me through a challenging time. Later when I saw those paintings again in galleries I was overjoyed to realize God used those ordinary things to help me keep on keeping on. In the same way this past year he used that Rabbi and that young student who shines Jesus light. In India in Mother Teresa’s leper colony many years ago, I encountered a leper. I wanted not to be fearful of seeing the leper who clearly was detiorating physically. So I prayed before looking up at him. I looked into his eyes afraid to see the condition of his body which was partially visible on the very hot conditions of Calcutta. Never will I forget looking into his eyes and seeing Jesus looking back. Mother Teresa’s ministry had supernatural.signs. That was the one I saw. I went on that trip in a bad state emotionally and because of the presence of Jesus in that leper, I returned having an experience of Jesus I will never forget. If each one of us realized that Jesus appears to us daily through one another we would be changed for life.

    Thanks for the wonderful devotional

    • Elizabeth Clifford on March 1, 2019 at 11:15

      Thank you for sharing your experiences of Revelation, Jeanne. May they continue all the days of your life.
      Br. Curtis, thank you for reclaiming Original Blessing for us all <3

  7. AL on June 4, 2018 at 08:55

    Thank you for urging me to remember my own joyous moments and to appreciate the present day symbols of an abundant life!

  8. Michael on June 4, 2018 at 08:16

    Somehow the idea of Jesus not being spiritual is comforting. Simply trying to live a decent and kind life is tough enough without adding a spiritual life into the mix. To acknowledge that a decent and kind life is a spiritual life give hope and promise to us all

  9. John G. on June 4, 2018 at 06:48

    What would be for me living water? Self acceptance. I have had difficulty accepting my life as I have lived it. Living water is the knowledge that Jesus loves me as he loves each of us enough to take on our sins and die for us. He has transformed life. He is more accepting of me than I am. But I am working on disrupting those negative thoughts and ways that attack my self esteem.
    As for a sign of joy? The first thing I thought of was mother bringing in my birthday cake when I was a child. As an adult, my greatest joy was when my wife agreed to marry me.

  10. Jeanne Brown on March 9, 2014 at 10:52

    I feel that the second paragraph here is especially meaningful and inspirational. It reminds us, and offers many examples, of the ways in which Jesus provided us with His guidance and insight into what is truly important in this life, and its relevance to life eternal. Thank you.

  11. Maureen Doyle on August 23, 2013 at 10:06

    Trees aren’t intrusive. They rustle, not shout. Yet they provide comforting shade and protection. They manufacture oxygen. They soothe.
    When their leaves would block sun from a colder ground, they adorn themselves in colors and, obligingly drop their leaves. Which, if left in place, provide fertilizer and weed discourager when the sun returns.

    • Leslie on June 4, 2018 at 05:41

      Yes, and even weeds make oxygen.

  12. Bob on March 16, 2013 at 14:38

    Br. Curtis,
    Does Jesus not breath the Spirit on to us? And does not Paul talk of spiritual fruit, love, joy, peace patience,……ect Are these descriptive not proscriptive? The grace is just there while we focus on the icons of who Christ is for us? I probably fail to understand what you are saying but this is neither my lived or perceived experience!

  13. Ruth West on March 16, 2013 at 14:14

    Br. Curtis, what good food for thought! Thanks for all of it.

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