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Signs and Symbols – Br. Curtis Almquist

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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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4 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!
    Margo

  4. 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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