By Mary Marrocco
Amusingly, and confusingly, two signs were posted, one above the other, on the charming wrought-iron gate leading to a country estate: “Welcome” and “No trespassing.” The place seemed to say simultaneously, “Come in, we want you,” and “Stay away, we’re afraid of you.”
We frequently give such double signs — warmth and coldness, invitation and rejection, served up together on one platter. This habitual conflict may help explain our difficulty in receiving and interpreting divine signs. These are never conflictual, but we might find them puzzling.
Sometimes we ask for a sign, something clear and unambiguous: a rainbow at the right place, a text message at the right time. In practice, though, signs can be confusing, and we can easily treat them more as acts of superstition than faith.
Yet signs are an important part of Christian faith. They are a concrete reality that indicates the presence of something else. That is a boon for us, because mostly we need help to be present to the “something else” that is God.
Church life is full of signs, like the one we ourselves make so commonly we hardly think of it as one: the sign of the cross.
As we turn toward Christmas, we notice many signs of the season: cold weather, shopping frenzies, toy drives, lights, concerts and plays, special foods, parties. They’re big and bold enough to drown out the real sign of Christmas, the quiet little sign that surpasses all others.
It is the sign that’s specially designed for us humans in this shadowed, pain-laden world, the sign given not to celebrities or government leaders but to forgotten night laborers living on the periphery.
“You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
This is the sign given to the shepherds in the fields as they kept watch by night (Lk 2).
Did they ask for a sign, or was it simply given them? We are not told. We are told that the Lord’s glory shone round them, and the very messengers of heaven were sent to them.
We are told how they responded. They heard. They listened (together). They made haste. They recognized. And they made known.
If this sign seems confusing or unclear to us, we might need to stop thinking and start feeling. The shepherds who were given this message didn’t write learned treatises on it, nor post it on platforms.
No, they immediately went to encounter this sign in the flesh. Only then did they start talking. “When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.”
There is no mixed message in this sign — it’s all good news, without conflict and without condition — but there are infinite layers of meaning in it. Two millennia and more have not been enough to cause humanity to grow tired of this sign, or reach the limit of its depths.
We need this sign today more than ever. And more than ever, we need the church to be that sign: in poverty and vulnerability, surrounded by both glory and humility. He is one that’s best glimpsed in darkness, far from the blue light of digital screens, but close to the human heart with all its inexpressible longing.
We live in an extraordinary time: The sign given to the shepherds is daily present to us in the ministry of our own Pope Francis, who continually shepherds us to the “periphery.”
In the “Life of St. Francis of Assisi,” a biography of his patron saint written not long after the saint’s death, St. Bonaventure tells of the year St. Francis wanted to help the people of Greccio, Italy, understand that Bethlehem was not only in the Holy Land, but in every periphery.
He convinced the priest to say Mass in the periphery of the city, in a cold field. He created a living creche in a cave — with live animals and a life-size manger.
St. Bonaventure tells of a soldier, John, who through Christ had left warfare and become a friend of St. Francis. John “affirmed that he beheld an infant marvelously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake him from sleep.”
However it happened that day, the same sign was given as to the shepherds and seen by one who lived on the periphery.
The genius of St. Francis was to show that Bethlehem is found wherever people live on the margins. This Christmas, will we find the shepherds’ sign in the comfort of overheated buildings or outside on the periphery, where both Francises direct us?
The shepherds themselves became signs — real people who indicate God’s presence in the world, “God with us,” which is Emmanuel, the name the baby was given.
Will we become signs?
Mary Marrocco is a theologian, writer and practicing psychotherapist. She is involved in spiritual formation of seminarians and lay pastoral workers in Toronto and founded St. Mary of Egypt Refuge, a place of hospitality and welcome for people in need. She is an ecumenist who specializes in the relationship between Eastern and Western Christianity.