The picture above was taken outside our new St. Francis Xavier Seminary Building sometime in October – it shows a flight of steps going up to a side door of our building, and behind that door are the public toilets. If you take a closer look at it, you might notice the little blue sign pointing the way to the handicap toilet. No, there is nothing wrong with our building’s design – the issue lies with the sign; it is supposed to point to the ramp access further up behind the parapet, but instead it seems to point our friends in wheelchair up the flight of steps. This sign didn’t fulfill its function – it pointed people the wrong way. Perhaps this picture brought a smile to your face as you read this; hopefully no one followed the sign and tried to push a wheelchair up those steps.
But upon reflection, this humour of the misdirected sign points to a deep mystery about our Christian lives. For St. Paul tells us that everyone who is baptized has put on Christ (see Galatians 3:27). Yes, the Church’s baptismal rite expresses this reality vividly by clothing each newly baptized in a white garment as these words are proclaimed: “you have become a new creation, and have clothed yourselves in Christ” (Rite of Baptism of Children and Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). Now, there are many rich implications behind this idea of us being clothed with Christ, but I wish to focus and elaborate on just one: that we, baptized Christians, have become a sign.
A sign is meant to direct people’s attention to some other object beyond itself. By being clothed with Christ through Baptism, we should no longer be pointing to ourselves but to Christ – so we become signs, both collectively as a Church and individually as Christians, pointing others to Christ. We do this through our actions, our words, by the manner of our lives and how we respond to joys and sorrows in life. For example, when parents show love to their children, valuing them as persons with their own gifts instead of for their academic or other achievements, they are effective signs of God’s unconditional love for their children. When Christians put the values of Christ, such as justice, mercy and love, ahead of the values of the world, they are effective signs of God’s Kingdom in their workplaces and their social circles. When we are welcoming in our parishes, forgiving in our church carparks and attentive to needs of migrant workers, the elderly and the sick, we are effective signs of God’s kindness to those we encounter.
Indeed, St. Paul reminds us that “[our] behaviour [should] be free of murmuring and complaining so that [we] remain faultless and pure, unspoilt children of God surrounded by a deceitful and underhand brood, shining out among them like bright stars in the world, proffering to it the Word of life” (Philippians 2:14-16, NJB). To be bright stars diverting people caught up in the world towards Christ, the true Word of life, is the mission of each Christian. It is not optional; it is not reserved to priests and religious.
So what happens when Christians, in the manner of our lives, do not point to Christ? We become like the misdirected sign in the photo. We point others the wrong way – sometimes even to the false gods of this life: money, sex, food and drink, the latest gadgets, the next pleasure, to tarot cards and other superstitious beliefs. We point to ourselves – when our pride says that we are own masters, whatever else our lips may sing in church; when Christians who profess to love as Jesus loved sow disunity and discord in their offices or parish communities; when we excuse, or even cover up, the wrongs that we do; when the way we live is no different from how our non-Christian friends live. We do not merely become useless signs; we become harmful signs leading others astray, we become countersigns of Christ – there is no middle ground.
So far I have been writing about the Christian’s personal manner of life and how that can be a sign pointing to Christ or away from Christ. I now wish to broaden this a little and hope you can stay with me. The interesting thing about being human is that our individual actions don’t just remain with the individual – personal actions contribute to a broader human reality, something that can generally be called culture. I’m not going to define culture here, but I think we all can see how our personal actions can shape culture. And culture gives meaning to human actions, so that our actions are understood by others in a culture in a particular way; actions become signs of their own.
Take for example the simple act of eating together. From the way we avoid sitting at the same table with strangers in our food courts and hawker centres, we see that our culture gives deeper significance to eating together than mere physical proximity. Indeed, sharing a meal together, across many human cultures, is a sign of friendship, fellowship and togetherness. Friends and families eat together, especially during celebrations: it is a sign of familiarity and strengthens relationships. And so we instinctively know that something is not quite right when a family sits down at table for a meal, but each one is focused on his or her own phone, tablet and food.
Why am I raising this up? Because I see the recent public debate on the repeal of Section 377A in the light of how human actions, through the interpretive lens of culture, are also signs pointing to something beyond the action. I am not going to rehash the well thought-out and sensitively written pastoral letter of our Archbishop, which I concur with fully; but I wish to say something further. If the simple human action of eating together is a sign pointing to friendship and communion, what might the profound act of human sexuality point to? For our reflection, I propose that the human sexual act points to a love that is so total and complete that it, and it alone, says: “I love you so fully that I commit myself to you, and not just to you but also to any child that may arise from our union, regardless of who and how our child will turn out to be.” Our Catholic faith, with its teachings regarding human sexuality, marriage, divorce, abortion and contraception, proposes that the human sexual act, in God’s design, is indeed a sign that, in the depths of our being, points towards such a total, complete and life-giving love. If this is the case, is a culture that welcomes other expressions of human sexuality really progressive and tolerant? Would it help others to realise and live this meaning of our human sexuality? Or would it rob the sign of its deepest meaning thus impoverishing human sexuality for everyone instead?
As Christians, we are signs for Christ and called to be leaven to grow a culture, by our witness, which helps point people towards truth and beauty. What kind of sign have we been so far? What kind of sign is God inviting us to be?
Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
― St. Teresa of Avila