The Beauty of Signs and Symbols


Why would Luke have thought it important to tell us that the woman whom  Jesus encounters on the Sabbath, in a synagogue, had been crippled for eighteen years? Luke could as easily have said that she had suffered for decades or since her childhood. But no, he tells us that it had been eighteen years. And consider how Jesus meets and heals her on the sabbath. For as we may know, the sabbath falls on the seventh day. It represents the seventh day of Creation and the fulfillment of God’s wise and beautiful pattern for the cosmos. This helps us recognize the meaningful fact that eighteen involves multiples of six — three multiples of six, to be precise. This woman has suffered for a period of time that represents multiples of incompleteness, a triple amount of falling short of wholeness, of not-yet-experiencing God’s hopes for her and the world. And Jesus brings a completeness for which the whole Creation has been groaning.

Yet, consider the effect upon us of our modern, advertising-shaped, culture. For you might suspect that the symbolic reading of this passage that I have just offered involves reading something into the text, something that is not necessarily there. Since, as we are widely encouraged to believe, symbols are merely signs, that bear no intrinsic connection with what they point to. If so, then all signs  —whether they are names or numbers— are potentially arbitrary and idiosyncratic. Here, we must move forward in faith, and be willing to entertain another possibility. The alternative possibility is that we will find more in this text – ‘a meaning’ that really is there, to be gleaned, savored, and incorporated in our lives. Its meaning has to do with blessed rest, and when we rest in a real way.

Let’s come at this from another direction. Ask most American Christians these days when ‘the sabbath’ is, and a common answer will be ‘Sunday.’ If we assume this is true, then our sabbath is different from the biblical sabbath, which raises a larger question. Is the connection between the idea of the sabbath, and a particular day of the week, essentially arbitrary? As long as we have some kind of sabbath, does it really matter when? But then, consider what we lose in the process. We lose our connection with biblical faith, with the sabbath that Jesus observed, and with the idea that the sabbath fulfills all that has come before. We take a break on the seventh day, on Saturday (if we can), for a reason ~ a holy reason. We do it so we might better appreciate how God fulfills divine purposes through grace and Providence. And so, God’s sabbath helps us remember that our future is shaped as much by God as it is by our own works and efforts.


The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, The Woman With an Infirmity of Eighteen Years. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 25, 2019, where you will find more extensive reflection on the distinction between signs and symbols, and which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

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