Vatican II was the council of the “signs of the times.” The conciliar documents use the expression four times. Unitatis redintegratio applauds ecumenical efforts and exhorts Catholic believers “to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism.” The introduction to Gaudium et spes explains that the Church “carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.” Dignitatis humanae describes the increasingly global recognition of religious freedom as a civil right as a “happy sign of the times.” And Presbyterorum ordinis insists that priests take into account lay people’s wishes, experience, and competence, so that together they may recognize “the signs of the times.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t make too much of the repeated use of the expression. The way in which the conciliar documents use it is relatively innocuous (though I must admit that I have qualms about the broad-stroke treatment of the “civil right” of “religious freedom”). And, on a positive note, the Vatican II documents say a great deal about the centrality of Christ in interpreting created and historical realities.
Still, the council’s use of “signs of the times” doesn’t occur in isolation. Marie-Dominique Chenu, the medievalist and social activist from the Dominican school of Le Saulchoir, had often used the expression in the years leading up to the council. Chenu thought it crucial that we be on the lookout for signs of the times. Chenu saw these signs as positive indications of the progressive humanizing of society, which he believed allows Christians to recognize points of contact (pierres d’attente) in secular values.
Chenu evaluated positively the desacralizing secularism that he believed originated in the twelfth century. Chenu’s desire to think and act in line with the signs of the times was grounded in an optimistic evaluation of modernity, along with an affirmation of the modern autonomy of the natural realm and a celebration of the modern historical consciousness. Chenu thought it important to be on the right side of history.
Three characteristics stand out in Chenu’s understanding of signs of the times. First, there are many such signs that we can identify. Second, it is important that we search for them and identify them, presumably because they allow the church to be in sync with modern society. And third, the signs of the times are evaluated in a uniformly positive manner: They are aspects of modernity that the church should applaud and make her own.
When Jesus speaks of signs of the times, it is in response to the Pharisees and Sadducees testing him by asking him for a “sign from heaven” (Matt. 16:1). Jesus is critical of their search for signs: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign,” he insists (16:4; 12:39). He chastises his interlocutors, who are able to interpret the sky (Jesus here gives his own version of the common-sense phrase “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning”), but who cannot interpret the “signs of the times.” Jesus seems to imply that there’s no need for him to comply with the request that he give a sign, because there are already numerous “signs of the times”—which the Pharisees and Sadducees fail to interpret properly.
As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis points out in his meditations on Matthew (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word), “Jesus has just been performing sign upon sign, dissolving the crippling cramp in muscles, putting the power of admiration in disheartened imaginations, filling bellies to capacity and souls to ecstatic plenitude, riveting the attention of the chronically distraught on himself as Heart of the World.”
Exactly so. Every action or word of Jesus is a sign of the times. And the great sign is the sign of Jonah, whose three-day sojourn in the belly of the fish was a sign of the paschal mystery (16:4). Why look for signs when Christ, the Ursakrament, makes heaven present on earth in everything he does? Again, as Leiva-Merikakis puts it, the men putting Jesus to the test “fail to see that the person of Jesus is, already in himself, the living and unsurpassable Sign from Heaven because he is the Face of God made visible to mortal eyes.”
In fairness, it’s not entirely clear that Jesus has in mind his own actions when he speaks of “signs of the times” (though the use of the term kairos for “time” calls to mind the unique events of Christ’s incarnate ministry). And one might point out that in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus speaks not of interpreting “signs of the times,” but of interpreting “the present time”: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56). Does Saint Luke perhaps have in mind a positive evaluation of certain aspects of one’s surrounding (secular) culture, which may point us in the direction of the gospel?
The problem is, in Luke, Jesus has just spoken of the judgment he will bring: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” (12:49). He has cautioned that the reason for his coming is not to bring peace but division (12:51). The Anglican lectionary readings that accompany this passage from Luke 12 on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (August 18 this year) are Jeremiah 23:23–29 and Psalm 82. Both readings speak of the heavenly divine council. Jeremiah insists that the false prophets have not stood in the council of the Lord (23:18, 22), so they merely have their own dreams to share when they preach peace. By contrast, it is Jeremiah’s message of doom that constitutes an “oracle of Yahweh” (nine times in 23:23–32). Similarly, in Psalm 82, God summons the “gods” or judges to his divine council, chastising them for their failure to give justice to the weak and fatherless.
Both Jeremiah 23 and Psalm 82 tell us that only when we take our cue from God’s throne room, from the divine council, will we be able to interpret the world around us, will we be able to read the present time. Both passages suggest that it is God’s throne room that makes sense of the present time. It is God’s eternal Word, incarnate in Christ, which allows us to understand the historical moment. To be on the right side of history is not to treat natural realities as autonomous or historical developments as inevitable. To be on the right side of history is to dwell in the presence of Christ.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House.