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The Sign

Date Published: March 8, 2015

Gospel Reflection on the Third Sunday of Lent John 2,13-25

The fourth Gospel – that of Saint John – is fond of using contrasts and symbolism. We have one example of this in our Gospel passage this Sunday. The readers’ attention may immediately be drawn to the unfolding of the scenes in the account – namely, Jesus driving vendors and money changers out of the precinct of the Temple of Jerusalem – and easily interpret it as a simple manifestation of the Lord’s love for the Father’s house and a rather violent demonstration of his desire to keep it pure and duly respected by people. The evangelist even inserts the explicatory note: “The zeal for your house will devour me” (v.17) citing from Ps 69:9.

In our reflection, however, we will focus more on the apparently casual mention of the term “sign” (in Greek, “sēmeion”) in the text. The first mention of it is in v.18 which reads: “What SIGN can you show for doing this?” (put in the crowd’s mouth). The second time the term occurs is in v.23: “Many began to believe in his name when they saw the SIGNS he was doing.” Sign is a type of symbol. There are other types of signs, of course. Saint Augustine, in his famous work “De magistro” (The Teacher) speaks of “signanaturalia” (“natural signs,” like smoke, footprints, etc.) and “signa data” (“conventional signs,” such as words, national flags, and so forth) in this regard.

Signs are supposed to point to something beyond themselves (cf. “De Magistro” 1.2; 7.19; 9.25; 11.36; etc.) – that is, to the reality (in Latin, “res”) which they intend to indicate. In the case of our Gospel reading, the term “sign” is mentioned twice. This means that we are invited to go beyond the plot of the story or Jesus’ actions and words to understand the real message beyond them. Thus, on the part of Christ, there is more to it than the simple desire to safeguard the purity and sanctity of the Temple.

As to the message the Lord wanted those who witnessed his actions and heard his words to understand, we have to read very carefully through the account and the evangelist himself helps us discern it. In fact, at a certain point Saint John had Jesus say: “Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days” (v.19). We have here a very subtle transition from the Temple of Jerusalem as a “sign” of God’s presence amidst His people to the body of Jesus as the “sign” or symbol of the new temple of the Holy Spirit. Thus, our focus is now turned away from the material temple to the person of Christ himself.

Since the word “sign” now refers to his own body, Jesus foretells his imminent passion, death and resurrection by challenging his interrogators to “destroy this temple,” claiming that he would have it rebuilt in three days. The reference is clearly to his raising back to life after his death on the cross. The reconstruction of the temple in three days’ time foreshadowed his resurrection. The conceptual transition in the usage of the term “sign” does not end here.

Reading further through the text, Saint John says: “Many began to believe in his name when they saw the SIGNS he was doing.” While the Temple of Jerusalem was a “sign” pointing to Jesus’ body and its being raised back to life after his passion and death, the resurrection itself is yet another “sign” that communicates another message. Like the many miracles and healings the Lord performed during his earthly mission, his resurrection from the dead was supposed to help us understand that he was indeed the Son of God and the Messiah. Again, in this case, many readers would limit themselves to the “signs” per se and fail to grasp the message they want to transmit. In the Gospels, sometimes Jesus becomes quite disappointed with the crowd’s inability to understand the message behind his actions, for example, when he multiplied the loaves of bread and some fish to feed thousands of men and women (cf. Mt 14:13-21). People misunderstood the real message – namely, that he is the true bread that came down from heaven – and failed to realize their need for the true bread, which alone could satiate the hunger of their soul (cf. Jn 6:27.31-35). Thus, after they had witnessed the miracle, they started looking for Jesus, wanting to make him their king, thinking that he came to solve their material hunger. Christ decided to go away, in this case (cf. Jn 6:15).

As we enter the third week of Lent in preparation for the Easter season, our Gospel reading this Sunday invites us to be keen about the many “signs” God is sending us in order to discern His will and plan for us. More particularly, through such “signs” we are invited to deepen our understanding of who Jesus is and what his teachings are, so that we may be able to enter into a deeper relationship with him. (Fr. Czar Emmanuel Alvarez, OSA)

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