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.

The Beauty of Desert Rest

The apostles have just returned from their mission, into which Jesus had earlier sent them. Naturally, they wanted to tell him everything they had done. Especially since Jesus had sent them out with his own power and authority. Surely, they had much to report. He responds to them by saying, “Come away to a deserted place… and rest a while.”

The wise Gospel teacher, John Shea, suggests that we should not misunderstand Jesus’ invitation to them. It’s not that Jesus was offering them what we would call R&R, or rest and relaxation. Shea helps us see how Jesus was leading them to something more profound. Jesus was inviting the apostles to go deeper with him, into the mystery of his mission. As we have often found, in the biblically sensitive work of the artist James Tissot, the image I share with you above portrays a key moment in Mark’s Gospel. Despite Tissot’s sensitivity, he titled his painting, “Jesus commands the Apostles…” And yet, in Mark’s Gospel, we clearly hear an invitation, rather than a command. Either way, Jesus was urging them to come away ~ a message we can take to heart, as well.

Shea points out two key biblical words in Mark’s story that should catch our attention. Consider first the role of ‘deserted places’ in biblical history. It was in the desert that Israel was brought into covenant with God, when they received the Law at Mt. Sinai. It was in the desert that both Israel and —much later— Jesus, were tested. Whereas Israel failed the test, Jesus prevailed. And it became the doorway to his public ministry, which made manifest God’s Kingdom in a new and personal way. As Jesus himself experienced, the desert was the place where angels ministered to God’s chosen people.

The second key word that Shea points toward is ‘rest,’ also a highly symbolic word. By inviting them to rest, Jesus was not really interrupting what he had earlier sent them to do. Instead, he was giving them an opportunity to fulfill their new vocation, and bring it to completion. Genesis tells us that on the seventh day, God rested. And it was not because God was tired, or somehow in need of restoration, after six days of creating everything. The seventh day represented the sabbath Shalom, the peace that fulfilled of all of God’s creative purposes. And so, by inviting the apostles into a time of rest, Jesus was inviting them to experience the deeper fulness of God’s mission, and its presence within him. This would best happen apart from the pressures and distractions of ongoing ministry.

In the desert, they would discover the beauty of sabbath fulfillment.


This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 22, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Commands the Apostles to Rest. John Shea is the author of the three volumes titled, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers. Here, I reference his comments in the second volume, for Year B.