Signs – Arnel Aquino, SJ

John 6:24-35, 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time


I saw something pleasantly strange in the first reading. “The Lord said to Moses,” the reading said, “’I will now rain down bread from heaven for you. Each day the people are to go out and gather their daily portion. In that way, I will test the Israelites to see whether they follow my instructions or not. I have heard them grumble. So tell them, at sunset you will eat meat. At sunrise you will have bread, that you may know that I am God.” And that God did. I say that this was pleasantly strange for me, because I know we Catholics only too well. Whenever we say “a test from God,” or “a sign from God,” we often don’t mean for them to be very happy words. “Test” or “sign” from God gives us a sense of foreboding, a feeling that something bad will happen. And for what? For God to teach us a lesson. Why? Well, we say because we lacked faith in God, that’s why he is testing us. Or we angered God, that’s why the signs of his anger. But here’s a passage from Exodus, one of the oldest books in the Bible, and we see God testing and sending signs that actually feed the Israelites and help them survive in the desert. Well, how about that!

Today, we often catastrophize when we contemplate a God who “tests,” a God who sends signs. I have serious misgivings about how we Catholics are fond of saying “God is testing us,” but that’s for another homily. The point I’m making this morning is that we Catholics have construed divine testing and divine signs as grim and ominous. When the young daughter of a friend died, my friend repeatedly said, “this is a sign from God.” Someone is diagnosed with lung cancer without ever having smoked a stick of cigarette in her life, her aunt says, “this must be a test of God.” Natural calamity strikes and we say, “this is a sign from God; a sign for us to repent, a test of our faith, a demand for us to go to confession…or else!” That is, “or else a worse thing, if not the worst, will happen.” Now don’t get me wrong. These adverse realities may arguably be message-bearing signs. But my point is, do divine signs always need to be (a) testy, (b) destructive, and (c) grievance-driven, i.e., because we did something awful, or our faith wasn’t strong enough, or didn’t go to mass on Sunday, or lied, etc. To which one of my students said, “That’s the God of the Old Testament, Fr Arnel; an angry, vengeful God.” Oh, no, no! For look at this passage in Exodus: God “tested” the Israelites and sent signs—but to feed them, by sending meat and bread, food for the journey in a desert of nothing, in spite of their grumbling.

The people said to Jesus, “What sign can you do that we may see, and so believe in you? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert. What about you?” “I am the bread of life,” said the Lord. “Whoever comes to me will never hunger, whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Sisters and brothers, there’s a very important message here about signs from God. We often look away from God to look for “signs” of God— and it’s usually the grimmer, more foreboding signs that we decode for a divine message. Yet look here, sisters and brothers. Here is the most important sign of God: the visible, bodily, touchable, hearable, personal sign of God’s presence and message: Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the “sign” of God. He points to who God is, yes. But, more importantly, he himself is the God of whom he is the sign. That’s why we say in theology, in Jesus, the signifier & the signified are one and the same. See, when we talk about everyday signs, like an arrow, a stoplight, a dove—they all signify another, more important reality. An arrow points to the right direction. A red light signifies stopping for our own safety. A dove represents peace. The right direction, safety, and peace are the greater realities signified by their respective signs. But Jesus is quite different as a “sign.” He both points to the greater reality as well as is the very reality he signifies. So, Jesus signifies God and personifies the Father. Now a further question: what is this God that Jesus signifies and personifies? Is he grim and ominous? Well, Jesus says today, “I am the bread of life.” Bread? Jesus as “bread” speaks plenty of the kind of God he signifies and personifies: a God who’s dying to feed us rather than to gratify himself by testing us through deprivation; a God who wants us to delights in him, like we delight in bread, rather than someone who wants to be fearsome and disheartening. Most importantly, Jesus as bread personifies a God who wants to keep us alive and exuberant, rather than someone who conjures up a test to distress us and kill our spirits. But going back to our examples, we usually look at the daughter’s accident as the sign from God, instead of her enduring blessings left in our lives. We look at the cancer as the sign from God, instead of the people around us who keep us comforted in our illness. We look at the earthquake, the storm as the signs of God’s anger, instead of the relentless call for governance to take comprehensive care of the poor, both in fair weather and inclement, instead of always taking care only of themselves. We usually look away from God hoping to find a sign of him, don’t we?

Are you still looking for signs of God & from God? Are you looking for a sign of what God wants you to do, where God wants you to go? Are you looking for signs of what God might be saying to you? Well, it will take us a long time if we keep looking up and away from God to find those signs. But when you have some time, pick up your New Testament, and this time, with more attention and deep devotion, read the sign—the clearest, most visible sign of God: Jesus of Nazareth. Always remember that Jesus did not say, “I am God’s sword who will cut you off and away when you sin,” or “I am God’s tax collector and I come to tell you that the grace you’re asking for comes at a steep price,” or “I am God’s gavel. I will nail your verdict down as final and irrevocable.” No. Jesus, the sign of God, says: “I am bread from heaven, your bread of life. I signify and personify a God who is a “staple,” without whom even the best and most scrumptious fare would feel inchoate, even absurd, like having lechon, kare-kare, dinuguan, but no rice. The God I signify and personify, in other words, he will not rest until your deepest hunger is fed.” Jesus, sisters and brothers, is the sign of God. And we see signs of his presence in everything and everyone by which and by whom we are nourished. Amen.

*image from the Internet

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