3rd. Sunday of Advent (A)
(Isaiah 35:1-6, 10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11)
It has often been said that many Catholics know too little of the Bible because of their failure to appreciate the fact that not only do the Scriptures form the basis of our Christian faith and Catholic teaching, but also that the Scriptures are the Word of God to and for each and every individual child of God. Consequently, even the most humble Catholic and Christian should be able to enter upon, sustain, and gradually deepen a personal relationship with God by the help of the Scriptures, for what we find written there can, under the guidance of the Spirit given us (above all at confirmation and by Jesus in the Eucharist), be of special significance and particular importance for our personal formation as children of God and devoted disciples of Jesus in today’s secular and hostile society.
Let me now show you how Jesus recalled the Scriptures to John the Baptist in prison, thereby helping him learn how to face up to the future that lay before him.
John had been told by his father Zechariah:
You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins. (Luke 1:76-77)
And John had, indeed, tried throughout his life to be faithful to that calling to prepare the way for the Lord Who was to come. From his earliest years he had lived in the desert observing the ways of God: striving to better listen for, recognize, and respond to His guidance. Then, entering upon his public ministry, he had openly and provocatively preached repentance to the people who had come in crowds to be publicly ‘baptized’ by him in the Jordan. Finally, having openly rebuked the king himself for his sinful behaviour, John had been put in the dungeon where he now found himself.
However, despite such fidelity, John had not yet come to know sufficiently well the Lord, the Messiah sent by Israel’s God to usher in the His Kingdom on earth, Whose way he had been preparing. There had been, indeed, a time when he thought that Jesus of Nazareth, his own relation, was the One sent by God; but Jesus had not rallied the support around Himself that John might have hoped for; and now -- perhaps because of weariness from hunger, pain, and lonely abandonment -- John was not sure what was happening or just what to think. It was in some such a state of mind that he had managed to send disciples with a message to Jesus asking:
Are You the Coming One, or should we look for another?
And what about Jesus at this time? He knew John's faithfulness and courage: how John had spent his whole life preparing the way before Him and now finding himself imprisoned and in mortal danger because of his zeal for the Law of the Lord and the well-being of God's People. Was Jesus -- Who later would tell the repentant thief dying on a cross beside Him, that he would, that very day, enter Paradise with Himself -- was that Jesus going to let John -- the greatest of all OT prophets -- just linger on in prison doubtful of the outcome and value of his life’s endeavour, while awaiting a violent and degrading death in lonely isolation? If Jesus had been the earthly Messiah popularly expected He might have gathered His followers and stormed John’s prison in order to free His faithful servant; but, having been sent to witness to His heavenly Father and usher in His Kingdom on earth, was there nothing that He could do now to help John in his uncertainty, anxiety, and deadly peril?
Jesus would, indeed, send help: He would speak to John – who was, He declared, more than a prophet -- through the words of the prophets so well known to him. Accordingly He sent John's disciples back to their master with a message from the Scriptures which they could easily remember and in which John would find the comfort and strength he needed if, fully trusting in Jesus, he would open his mind and heart to the grace of the Spirit Who had inspired those words:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the Good News proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offence at Me.
As John listened to his disciples and considered the message they brought him, the cloud of dark unknowing in his mind and the burden of anxiety in his heart would have begun to lift; for that message told John clearly enough that Jesus was ready both to usher in the Kingdom of God and also to help him personally in his own deepest and most intimate needs. Thus John learned that he had successfully fulfilled his life’s mission, and that Jesus was undoubtedly the long-awaited Coming One now taking over from himself as leader and indeed as the Messiah for God’s People!
Jesus chose words from Scripture that invited John first of all to recall the prophecy of Isaiah:
The eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Jesus then added further words of most particular significance:
And the poor have the Good News proclaimed to them,
specially chosen to call to John’s mind yet another prophecy in Isaiah (61:1):
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.
Jesus chose these words, so familiar and now so directly pertinent to John, because they contained a message which John, by the grace of that same Spirit, could not fail to recognize as being fulfilled in himself:
He (God) has sent Me (the Messiah) to heal the broken-hearted, proclaim liberty to captives, and open the prison to those who are bound.
The final words of Jesus, however, were of even greater significance for, by telling John’s disciples to repeat:
Blessed is the one who takes no offence at Me,
Jesus recalled to John’s mind a most pertinent prophetic warning of Isaiah (8:13-14):
The Lord of Hosts, Him you shall hallow … He will be … a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel ... and many of them shall stumble.
People of God, note carefully, for here we can trace how grace works, secretly and powerfully, upon one in tune with God: Jesus was offering John a rewarding glimpse of the ultimate fulfilment of his own life’s work and Israel’s calling. As Moses had been given just a distant view of the Promised Land before he died, here John was being allowed to see something of the full majesty and beauty of the One for Whose coming he -- foremost of the prophets of Israel -- had been called to prepare: the beauty of God’s Anointed, the Messiah of Israel, indeed; but yet, still more, even that of the very Son and Lamb of God Himself.
What then, for John, was the “liberty” and the “freedom” mentioned in Isaiah and now being offered him by Jesus? He realized that Jesus was not about to lead a task force, so to speak, to release him, but rather that Jesus was inviting him to think of his final liberation, that is, to prepare himself for earthly death and heavenly fulfilment. Jesus was doing for John what He would later do for the repentant thief: urging, encouraging, and inviting him to gird up his loins and lift up his head in hope for what was soon to come.
That was the message which none but Jesus could get through to John in his total isolation, a message carried by his disciples, taken from the Scriptures but only to be rightly interpreted thanks to John's life-long sensitivity to God’s ways and willingness to commit himself once again in response to the grace of the Spirit, to Jesus the Messiah, and to the Lord God of Israel. John had prepared the way for Jesus, Jesus was now preparing the way for John; preparing him to die as he had lived, the greatest of all Israel's prophets.
And so, by the grace of God, when the soldiers would come to cut off John’s head, they would not find him cowering from fear in the darkest recess of his dungeon cell; but, to their great amazement, they would discover John having -- thanks to the sustenance of the Scriptures -- a profound peace in his heart and a gleam of expectancy in his eyes; a new uprightness in his stance and a calm strength in his bearing. All of this would show those executioners that they were not so much taking his life from him, as he, John, was offering it -- through them -- to Someone they could not see and did not know.
Such was the case; they came quickly and secretly carried out their dread task before going back to Herod with John's head. However, they left that dungeon both humbled and puzzled. What had happened to the man acclaimed by all and yet most harshly imprisoned there? They had come to take his life and he had received them as welcome guests, as friends bringing him a gift: what, indeed, had happened to him in that cell? The answer was, of course, that John had come to realize that he had, indeed, fulfilled his life’s purpose: he had borne witness to God’s truth; he had pointed out, even ‘baptized’, God’s Messiah; and now -- having learnt his ultimate lesson through Scriptures chosen for him by his Lord – he had found the peace and been given the strength to seal his witness and crown his commitment to Jesus and the God of Israel by his very blood.
People of God, how will you approach the end of your days? Will you feel you have fulfilled your life’s mission? Will you be grateful to God for having inspired you to do something worthwhile with your life?
Let us listen to Jesus again as He spoke to the people about John:
What did you go out into the wilderness to see: a reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see: a man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.' Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist.
When you come to your end and look back on your life, will you, perhaps, then painfully realize that your life has been aimless, having pursued no chosen purpose nor served any worthwhile cause; will you recognize yourself to have been just a reed, shaken hither and thither by winds of circumstance? Or again, will you, in those final moments see that, having enjoyed the "good things of life", you have really been like one “dressed in soft clothing”. Whichever be the case, no such qualifications would recommend you to Jesus or afford comfort for your soul.
John the Baptist had fulfilled his life’s mission and great joy, peace, and gratitude were his at the end. You might say that anyone called to be great -- like a prophet -- would feel they had a mission in life, a purpose to fulfil, and a cause to serve, but such is not the case with ordinary people endowed with no special talents of which they are aware.
Therefore listen once again to Jesus for a final time, and learn about yourself, perhaps for the first time (!):
Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
As a baptised Christian, as a practicing Catholic and living member of the Body of Christ, you have a calling and a purpose even higher than a prophet’s mission: you are the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit and called to be another Christ in this world. Whatever your circumstances, you can -- in the power of the Spirit -- bear blessed witness to Jesus: by teaching, encouraging, and correcting your children; by showing honesty in business and speaking the truth in love; you can be charitable in your attitudes and chaste in your relationships; steadfast in faith, selfless in service of God and neighbour; you can sympathetically share with the humble and those in need; and you can always try to bear your own cross patiently with and for Christ. Above all, as a true child of Mother Church you can, through her teaching and sacraments, come to love your heavenly Father to the utmost of your being in Jesus, by the Holy Spirit.
Now, living in such a way, dear ordinary (!) Catholic and Christian people, you can do more than any great politician, more than any powerful, rich, or famous individual, for the blessing of our world and the well-being of its peoples today and for the future. For you are a chosen people, and each one of you has been called by the Father to be a true disciple of His Son, Jesus. Therefore you are important enough to God for Him to want to speak to you, to speak with you, personally, in and through the Scriptures; let Him do this, let Him lead you to fulfil your vocation in Mother Church, and true happiness and ultimate blessedness will most assuredly and enduringly be yours.