Look out for a sign

On the island of Madeira there is a village called Curral das Freieras, 'the Nun’s corral', because about 500 years ago when French pirates captured the capital Funchal the nuns of the convent of St Clare fled there to take refuge. It was the only village on the island that could not be spotted from the sea. The nuns managed to escape the attentions of the pirates and later returned safely to the convent with their virtues intact.

Drivers passing by have their attention drawn by the sign of an old camera indicating a miradouro, a viewpoint. From the side of a mountain you look down onto the village, it looks as though it sits in the crater of a volcano, but is actually just in a hollow surrounded by mountains. There is a magnificent view of the village way below surrounded by the lofty peaks with hawks circling and calling from all around. 

Sometimes we need to have our attention drawn to things, because otherwise we may be unaware of what is around us. Headlines draw our attention to important news stories, pick of the day, to good television programmes, posters to special events and spectacles. All the time we are being invited to look, to watch, to behold.

When John the Baptist is depicted in art he is often shown with a lamb beside him and with his finger extended, because he points out Jesus to his own disciples and invites them to behold the Lamb of God. He indicates to them the one of whom he had spoken, the one whom the people of Israel were expecting. He was easy to overlook because  he did not come in recognizable glory, but in a humble form, part of a tradesman’s family; and like an ordinary  lamb sacrificed in the temple to atone for the sins of the people he was to die on the altar of the cross.  John had to point him out.

As Christians we believe that Christ is alive and present in this world, not in an instantly recognizable way, but in ways that point to him, that indicate his presence. Jesus is present in the Eucharist, as the bread and wine become for us his body and his blood, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And so the priest repeats the words of St John the Baptist as he presents chalice and host to the people, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

The light that shines before the tabernacle points to the abiding presence of Jesus in that same blessed sacrament reserved there, which we should always treat with reverence.

The towers and spires of our churches are like fingers pointing upwards that invite us to behold the wonder of God.

And we are invited to behold Christ in the pages of the gospels, as we read and with our mind’s eye we use our imagination to picture the scene that the evangelist depicts. We are invited to behold the Christ, Emmanuel, God with us.  

We also behold Christ in other people, when we see faith in action, when we behave in Christ-like ways.

The church itself has not always behaved in such ways. It is  a long time since the church was one and united, abuses and disputes have led to various splits, and so the church is now fragmented into various parts. In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we are asked to pray for the unity of the Church  that, as Jesus prayed, we might all be one as he and the Father are one. There is great variety in the church in its many forms whether we are Anglican, Catholic, Methodist or Baptist, there is more that we agree on than disagree. We have more in common than we would previously have dared to admit.

Jesus asked John’s disciples what they were looking for. Many people today are looking and searching. Their attention may well be drawn to signs that show where God might be found. It is up to us to point the way, to be living signs of the presence of Jesus, and to invite others to behold Jesus that he may become as real to them as he is to us.

Our faith is rich and deep in symbolism and meaning. The more we know and understand Jesus our master, the more enriched and fulfilled our lives will be and the better we may draw others to know him.