Dominica secunda Adventus
Evening, 3 December 2016
Church of St John the Evangelist
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for witness, to give testimony of the light, that all men might believe through him. He was not the light,
but was to give testimony of the light (Jn 1:6-9).
We do well to continue the discussion we began last week about the Last Gospel; we will likely spend the next two Sundays doing the same. Considered in light of today’s Gospel about the imprisonment of John, it seems a fitting course to take: we hear about St John the Baptist in both.
Do not fail to miss the drama hidden in the episode we just heard. St John is in prison.—By the way, he is there in the first place because of what he taught about marriage. We think our contemporary struggles are unique; they are not.—He is in prison and puts this question to Jesus by way of two of his disciples: Are you the one whose coming was foretold, or should we look for another? Let that question linger a moment. Imagine how it must have echoed in the mind of John even as his disciples left him in Herod’s prison. Doubtless John’s exceptional sanctity had steeled him in wisdom and courage; he knew well of his mission: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” And yet even with the surety of his mission and the confidence he had in the Providence of God, there was much riding on that question. Not everything was perfectly clear yet. After all, there had been other claimants to the role and title of Messiah before; they came to nothing. But with the true Christ, things were different: “Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, the poor have the Gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not scandalized in me.”
How those words must have assured John, perhaps even made his imprisonment a sacrificial joy.—But imagine for a moment if the answer had been different; thanks be to God it is pure speculation, but imagine it. His two faithful disciples return with grave, perplexed faces: these would be answer enough. With what words could he have comforted them? With what thoughts could he have comforted himself? For that matter, what sense would his imprisonment have made? Those years of fasting and prayer in the desert; the throngs to be baptized with repentance in the Jordan; his conflict with Herod and Herodias—what were all these? Was he deceived when he saw Spirit descend upon Jesus like a dove? The expectation of the long history of prophets and patriarchs and the faithful remnant was, as it were, concentrated in St John, and all this expectant longing would be cast into a vertigo of thwarted hope and desperation if this were not the Christ. To what other would he really look?
But once again, thanks be to God, this was not to be. The Last Gospel confirms it for us: “This man [John] came for a witness, to give testimony of the light, that all men might believe through him.” And so, through him, the many have come to believe.
“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Once again, it is not without reason that the Roman Rite uses the Prologue of John as the Last Gospel. Augustine remarked that it should be printed in gold letters and displayed in a prominent place in all our churches. The Catholic faithful are those who have received the testimony of St John: “This man came for witness, to give testimony of the light, that all men might believe through him.” And “as many as received him, he gave them power to be made sons of God, to them that believe in his name.” The Last Gospel sets the seal of John’s testimony upon our act of worship, and confirms us in the grace of Christ. For the Church is nothing less than that family that has become, in the language of Last Gospel, the children of God.
Yet dwell for a moment once again on the question of John the Baptist: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” We saw how important this question was for him, but it is not his question alone. Every human heart has uttered the same question, ours among them. The search for Christ or another is one way to describe the drama of sin and redemption in human life. The world proposes many saviors to us, and we hardly need to list them. Every sin and error is, in one sense, and to varying degrees, a kind of counter proposal to light and life which is Christ.—And yet, in point of fact, each of these proposals amounts to that one singular proposal that has echoed since the days of Eden: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.” The first sin was an act of looking for another besides God: and not only looking, but choosing—and that choice was one of absolute self-determination, a rejection of the order that proceeds from the mind of God.
But that is so very general. Imagine for a moment if John had received a negative to his question what that would mean for us individually. “Are you the one?” Indeed, what sins in our life would still have hold over us, if Christ Jesus were not the one? Furthermore, what confusions and questions of ours—the intimate, hidden thoughts of our hearts—would go unanswered? What aspects of our identity would have gone undeveloped? What blessings would be absent from our life, what acquaintances and friendships never found? What difficulties would have defeated us? What dullness of life and fear would still be ours if Christ were not the one who was to come—or at least if we refused to follow him or to acknowledge him as such? We would share John the Baptist’s prison, a lightless prison, with only that same frustrated longing and anxious fear to bear us company.
Our hearts say, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Yet, “In the beginning was the Word.” That Word says, “Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen. The blind see, . . . the deaf hear, . . . the dead rise again, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” We ourselves are the blind, the deaf, the dead, and the poor. “And blessed is he who is not scandalized in me.” No, indeed, do not be scandalized.—“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is sweet and my burden light.”