Throughout my childhood I considered myself a skilled reader, until in fourth grade when I received an embarrassing critique from my teacher: I was reading the words and sentences of the story but wasn’t actually comprehending the meaning. Reading, I discovered, was not simply about deciphering individual words, but understanding what was being depicted in the story. It meant making connections between the details to bring forth an imagined world, and from there, a deeper meaning.
Words and sentences are signs that point to something greater than themselves. The weaving together of words into a story, then, reflects an even deeper fabric of meaning. As readers, we learn to entrust ourselves to the substance of each story we read, knowing that a text reflects not simply words but an underlying world of ideas and meaning.
Yet do we do the same in the world around us? Or do we gravitate simply to external signs?
Signs and Meaning
This is the question proposed to us in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus rebukes his interlocutors for demanding a sign, saying, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” Yet what was the error in the people’s wish for signs? After all, don’t we need miracles to substantiate our faith in one who claims to be Son of God?
The problem arises when we fail to see the meaning behind the signs. The signs and wonders which Jesus performed were meant to draw us to Him. If we remain simply at the level of external signs, however, we are missing out on their true fruit: a deeper understanding and trust of He who gives them to us.
There is a Greater than Solomon Here
He reminds us that even pagans from centuries before were able to appreciate the meaning of certain signs given to them. The Queen of Sheba “came from the ends of the earth” to see the famed King Solomon, and ultimately affirmed his wisdom. Similarly, the Ninevites responded to Jonah’s call to repentance and came to humble themselves before the Lord. And yet, Jesus reveals, “there is a greater than Solomon here…there is something greater than Jonah here.”
There is an urgency in Jesus’ words that resonates with us even today. He offered to people an abundance of signs bespeaking His divinity, and ultimately, he gives us the greatest sign of all, His death on the Cross, that we might come to understand the love of God. Yet do we? Do we make an effort to seek beyond the signs to the deeper meaning? Or does hardness of heart keep us from putting it all together and discerning the truth?
Many atheists and non-believers express this demand for “signs” and proof in order to believe. “Show me God,” or “show me a miracle,” they propose, and then they will assent to faith. The reality, however, is that they still wouldn’t believe. The sign, in and of itself, is not enough for belief. We must open ourselves to the supernatural reality behind the sign; we must allow the pattern of different signs to reveal their deeper story, their ‘inner life’ to us. Consider presenting a great book like War and Peace to someone who doesn’t care for reading; it won’t mean much to him. Yet offer that book to a sincere reader, and it will unlock a whole world.
Friends, today I invite you to reflect upon this question in prayer: am I open to the meaning of things around me, or do I linger simply upon signs? Do I cultivate a sensibility that searches out meaning? The more we reflect upon our experiences, and upon the moments and people we encounter each day, the closer we come to understanding the One who has placed them there: Jesus, the Logos, the Word of God.
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