Posted by: Titus Presler | December 8, 2011

Signs and Counter-Signs: Meditation for Advent II Thursday

In April 1993 a lorry bomb was detonated by the Irish Republican Army in the old City of London, England.  Damaging the targeted banks and other financial institutions, the bomb also left in ruins the tiny medieval church of St. Ethelburga’s, which had survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz during World War II.

The church’s insurance didn’t cover terrorism, so there was a financial incentive to sell the site to wealthy institutions.  Instead, Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, embraced a vision to found there a ministry to heal the enmity and violence that had destroyed the church.

Money was raised, and a creative architect designed a sanctuary incorporating what remained of the church.  In 2002 the church was reconsecrated, and St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace opened to focus on the religious dimensions of conflict and the role of faith communities in resolving conflict.  The center convenes people across religious differences, often meeting in a goat-hair tent imported from north Africa and installed in the courtyard.  St. Ethelburga’s had a major role in communal healing after the July 2005 terrorist bombings in London.

St. Paul’s Chapel has had a similar role in New York City since the September 11 attacks of 2001.  After ministering to rescue workers for many months, St. Paul’s became an international pilgrimage site for commemoration and prayer.  Walking in the way led by Coventry Cathedral after its destruction in World War II, St. Paul’s is a center of the international Community of the Cross of Nails.

We humans are authors of horror: local and world wars, torture and degradation, mayhem and terror on every continent.  We can cower, shielding our eyes from the self-image these events impress on us.

Visionaries at St. Paul’s, St. Ethelburga’s and Coventry Cathedral refused to accept that inflicting horror defines the essence of being human.  Instead, they raised up counter-signs, signs that say, “No!  There is a face of God to behold, an image of God to live into.  We are called to reconcile, love and build community.”

The Occupy Movement, which this year has grown spontaneously into hundreds of protests around the world against economic injustice, signals a reawakening in many of the faculty of moral discernment and a catalyzing of the courage to act on such discernment.  The Arab Spring Movement, in which people are seizing a vision of self-determination and struggling for freedom, signals an even more radical discernment and courage among millions.  These are signals, signs, to which all religious people and all Christians should pay attention.

The signs God gives throughout scripture are counter-signs: dry ground in a watery sea, rain in drought, healing from illness, a messiah in a manger, resurrection from death.

As we look for signs of God’s reign in the world, be aware that God’s signs are counter-signs, signs that stand out from the world and often against the world.  As we offer ourselves into God’s mission in the world, let’s prepare ourselves to stand as counter-signs.

Parts of this meditation are excerpted from Titus Presler’s “Alert for Signs: Seeing and Praying through Advent” (Forward Movement Publications). 

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