The passion of Advent’s final days finds further expression, beginning on December 17, next Friday, as the Church reflects in the Evening Office on the eight ancient “O Antiphons” for Vespers, the words of which are found in the Advent hymn, O Come, o come, Emmanuel: “O Wisdom”, “O Lord of Lords”, “O Root of Jesse”, etc.
On this Third Sunday of Advent, we want to spend a few minutes reflecting on the Gospel reading (Matthew 11:2-11): specifically, about the irrationality of John the Baptizer, the irrationality of Jesus’ hearers, and our own irrationality. We can best do this against the background of Matthew’s 3rd-4th chapters.
John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River. The Spirit then directly leads Jesus into the desert. When Jesus emerges, he leaves his hometown, Nazareth, goes up to Galilee, lives at Capernaum in the northeast, and there he begins to preach: “Change your hearts, for the reign of heaven is at hand.” For the next seven chapters in Matthew, Jesus exercises a ministry of preaching and doing, which sounds good enough, except that he stirs up what can be called irrationalities in his cousin, John the Baptizer, in his followers, and he often does the same even to us.
The beginning of today’s Gospel passage makes it obvious that a good bit of time has passed since the events of Chapters 3 and 4. Jesus is still on the road, but John is now in prison. In prison John is growing tired and confused. He seems to have lost some of the confidence with which he first bore witness. He keeps hearing about what Jesus is doing, even as he’d been aware of Jesus’ earlier deeds. But Jesus hadn’t seem to measure up to John’s expectations. For example: Jesus ate with the very people of whom John demanded repentance. Jesus didn’t fit the traditionally expected role or exert the visible Messianic power which John assumed he would have. Matthew’s Gospel points out at least three previous times when John and his disciples have misunderstood Jesus and what he was doing: in Mt 3, where John mistakenly interprets Jesus’ ministry in terms of the refining fire of Messianic judgment; again in Chapter 9, where they challenge Jesus and his disciples for not fasting; and now, in Chapter 11 where John’s disciples give voice to his unspoken doubts: “Are you the One who is to come...or should we begin looking for another?” John has seen and now hears from prison what Jesus is doing; but he doesn’t seem to really connect the deeds with the message of the words. You might say that John the Baptizer was having a crisis of faith, becoming irrational, beginning to doubt if Jesus was really the Promised One for whom John had been preparing the way.
Leo Rosten, in his book The Power of Positive Nonsense, says: “The only force I fear more than human irrationality is irrationality armed with passion.” John had such passion, such deep feelings. It was John who leaped in Elizabeth’s womb at the mere voice of Jesus’ mother’s greeting. It was John who was overwhelmed that his cousin should come to him for baptism. It was John who’d said: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin.” It was John who’d heard the voice from the clouds: “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” It was John who proclaimed: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Yet, though he saw, John didn’t understand. He doubted, and he needed reassurance. The restless, irrational prophet who’d done the grunt work of preparing the way for others to know Jesus, has become the seeker, the searcher, desiring with all the passion in him to know for sure, so that, in any case, he can get on with making some sense of his present situation. Jesus, quoting, among other texts, the very moving passage from Isaiah in the first reading today (35:1-10), sends back a coded message: “Go and tell John what you hear and see…” Barbara Brown Taylor beautifully paraphrases Jesus’ words: “People who were blind to the love loose in the world have received sight; people who were paralyzed with fear are limber with hope; people who were deaf from want of good news are singing...And best of all, tell John that this is not the work of one lonely Messiah but the work of God, carried out by all who believe, and that there is no end in sight!”
All the signs of the Messiah are evident. The coming reign of God also now is. Jesus is clearly the One who not only promises God’s reign, but who initiates here, now; who embodies God’s purpose and plan in his words and deeds. And it’s to and in this mission and ministry that Jesus calls John, and his hearers, and us to participate: here, now; not just in the future. But Jesus hints that God’s reign, God’s way, will continually meet with resistance and rejection for all who participate, just as it will in Jesus’ life.Yet he calls all of them and us to this costly faithfulness of discipleship, to walk the way of the Cross, to face and embrace our fears and doubts and irrationalities in solidarity with him.
The second half of the Gospel passage intimates that John’s followers also continued to share John’s misgivings, his irrationality and questioning. John was an immensely popular man of God: even after he and Jesus were gone we see references to John’s disciples at Ephesus, for example, in Acts 19, 3. John recognized his call as forerunner of the longed-for Messiah. Just as John, his followers wanted to believe that; they felt deeply, passionately about the coming Savior/Messiah. But as Jesus goes about working his wonders for others, John lays wasting away in a prison. If deliverance is really the heart of the Good News which Jesus preaches, then why is all this happening to John and to them? “Our dreams have turned to nightmares; our plans have gone up in smoke. We see blind eyes opened, true, and the deaf now hearing, and the lame walking...but what about our situation, where everything seems to be crumbling? Are you really the One…?” Jesus can only respond: “Go and tell John what you hear and see, and blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
The New Covenant, the time of fulfillment, Jesus says, is now, with us who are among “the least in the reign of heaven”. Deliverance is evident to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. But that doesn’t automatically free us from our inner and outer prisons, from our own doubting and irrationality. The plain fact is that, within God’s reign, not every human situation gets better, on the personal, the communal, or the world level; healing and curing aren’t the same and don’t always happen together.
Despite the passion with which each of us has come (or will come) to an authentic encounter with the Living One; despite centuries of witness by patriarchs, prophets, martyrs, and saints; despite all the
nurturing of the Church through her sacramental life, we, too, so often succumb to our fears, doubts, and irrationalities, just as John and the others did. Almost daily we find ourselves, or those we love, in situations which seem impossible, which challenge us to our limits, which threaten to break us. “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?”
We must come to realize that the heart of faith and hope within God’s reign is finally coming to understand that God’s power can heal us even when no cure is possible. “My grace is sufficient for you...my power is made perfect in weakness.” The Acts of the Apostles constantly repeats what’s required to belong to the reign of God: 1) Repent: that is to say, turn your heart around; 2) Be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. Immerse yourself in the Covenant of the Love of God and your neighbor, as in a refreshing stream; 3) Confess that Jesus is Lord. Act and live as Jesus did. So simple. So uncomplicated. But never easy!
The Church calendar commemorated the noted Trappist monk and writer, Blessed Thomas Merton on Friday, December 10: the day of his tragic death by accidental electrocution in 1968. As you and I walk through the remainder of this Advent season of waiting, even in the midst of our own fears, doubts, and irrationalities, may we pray with and for one another in the spirit of this prayer of Merton’s: