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A Sign, High and Deep: What Is it God Wants of Us?

March 25, 2021


The LORD spoke to Ahaz:
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered,
“I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”
Then Isaiah said:
Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary men,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel. (Isa. 7:10-14)

This reading in Isaiah is fraught with beauty and mystery, and perfectly captures the sense of human smallness that always accompanies Lent, particularly as the end of the season draws nigh, and we take a measure of all the ways we fell short in our expectations of ourselves, and all we would “do, and do well” of our small penances and sacrifices.

Some of us have given up, thinking, “Next year; next year, I will really strive for perfection.”

Some of us are thinking, “We’ve got a week until the Triduum, I’m going to finish strong,” and we haul out the books we meant to have read by now, or the beads we put down somewhere, one day, and forgot to pick up again. Gonna finish strong, we insist, sounding both determined and a little wistful because we wholly understand that our resolve, well-intended and sincere in the moment, may not last out the daylight.

Some of us are peaceful in finding ourselves where we always are, year after year—stalled in the desert for having once again brought too much baggage with us. We’re old enough to know better, but also to have come to Lent with an expectation of relearning a simple lesson: that we do nothing of ourselves, alone. That grace is nothing to refuse, but to grab onto with both hands.

In this reading, the Lord invites Ahaz—who does not believe—to request a sign, and not just any sign, but a great one. Ahaz, using language that sounds pious but is in fact being spoken slyly, says he will not ask; he will not tempt the Lord.

In truth, Ahaz does not want a great sign from God, because he knows that if God delivers, he will be forced into belief, or at least acknowledgment, of what he prefers to keep at a distance.

For an unbeliever, God’s invitation is a challenge. EWTN foundress Mother Angelica liked to tell a story about a woman who accompanied a friend to the monastery for a visit. The woman was invited to take some of the nun’s books as a parting gift, but refused the offer, and when Mother asked why, she replied, “If I read them I know I will have to change, and I don’t want to change.”

This was Ahaz’s challenge, and he did not wish to meet it, because change—whether it be a new job, a new neighbor, or a complete societal overhaul carried out in a matter of months—brings with it too much that is unknown, and thus makes us vulnerable.

And to be vulnerable terrifies us, and makes us want to self-protect, to secure ourselves from any surprises out of our control. These past twelve months have handed us vulnerability in spades, and left us feeling a bit ragged, and disoriented. So what shall we do?

Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!

What would you ask of God, were he to offer such a sign, all while knowing that the sign would not be a mere symbol, but a condition of reality, just as something as pretty and distant as a rainbow is a sign and also a real effect of water droplets and light refraction? God’s sign, in Isaiah’s prophecy, is the promised arrival of the constant reality of God-With-Us. We read it on this Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, because we are today exactly nine months away from when we will observe the Nativity of Jesus Christ.

So, in Lent, as in Advent, we are now waiting with Mary. We are waiting with the Mother, to see Jesus emerge—from the pristine and be-graced womb in which he was formed; from the desert, where he has been silent in fasting and prayer; through the sheep gate, where he healed a man on the sabbath. We are waiting, with Mary, to witness him entering Jerusalem to cries of “hosanna”; to see him hauled from Gethsemane in chains; to emerge from the praetorium, bloody and raw, and then stay near, until—like a paschal lamb—he is exsanguinated, every bit of blood released for the sake of the world.

What great sign can we ask for, after all that? All that is left is his emergence from the empty tomb. God. With us. Once we see the fullness of what we are given—the child, the teacher, the Redeemer, the Lord, the Bread of Life—how do we not seek to change before this Reality, this Presence, we encounter at every Mass, every day, in every time zone on Earth, again, and still, and still, and still.

Yes, it makes us vulnerable because the living God sees us in full knowledge of our sins—gazes upon us with love even when we feel (when we are convinced) that we are unlovable. We want to run—to say, “Stop haunting me, stop chasing me with your love. If you know all of it, then you know I am not worthy!”

“God created us without us, but he will not save us without us,” wrote Augustine in one of his sermons, and the Annunciation demonstrates it. Our salvation hinges upon our consent to being saved.

We’re not so far from Ahaz, most of us, because—as St Paul writes—“it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.” And yet all he really wants us to do is be willing—like Mary—to draw near, and return his gaze in trust.