by Father Mike Stubbs
Smoke is a sign of fire. A smile means that someone is happy. A stop sign means just what it says. But what does a sign from God look like? And what can it say to us?
In Sunday’s first reading from the Book of Isaiah the prophet (7:10-14), God offers to give Ahaz a sign. When Ahaz refuses the offer, God gives it anyway:
“The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”
Compared to the birth of an infant, many other miracles could come across as more flashy, more dramatic. After all, babies are born every day. Think of the raising of Lazarus from the dead in the New Testament, or of Jesus walking on water. The sign offered to Ahaz does not sound all that impressive, at first glance.
So, the centuries go by. The sign offered to Ahaz passes into obscurity. Until finally, Christians reflect on the birth of Jesus, and see it as fulfilling the promise made to Ahaz long ago. Only now, they see the words of the prophet Isaiah as a promise made — not just to Ahaz, but to the whole world. The audience is expanded.
That promise was spoken in the Hebrew language, whose limited vocabulary resulted in many words serving double duty. Consequently, the word which is often translated as “virgin,” can also be translated simply as “young woman.” It is ambiguous. The early Christians reflecting on this promise most probably were not considering the original Hebrew text but, rather, a Greek translation that had rendered the word clearly as “virgin.” The more precise Greek language could make that distinction.
This translation correlated with their belief that this event marked the arrival of the Messiah. Even though it was the birth of an infant, because the mother was a virgin, this event would stand out as just as wonderful as the initial offer to Ahaz, of a sign as “deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky.”
This poses an interesting question: Does the sign interpret the event, or does the event interpret the sign? Or, is it both?
In any case, the birth of Jesus Christ, which we celebrate at Christmas, remains an enduring sign of God’s love for us. It is also a sign that points out for us the direction for us to go. It is a sign whose meaning we seek to explore and ponder.