Sunday, 11 December 2016

Advent Week 3 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-6,10; Psalm 145(146); James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

From his prison John the Baptist sends messengers to enquire about Jesus. Doubt has set in. Earlier in Matthew's gospel we are told that John knows exactly who Jesus is, the one coming after him, whom he is not worthy to baptise.

Has he now got cold feet? Jesus' reply can seem cruel, especially if John is going through a time of doubt. Jesus tells him that he is performing all the mighty works foretold of the Messiah. Except one. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the poor have good news preached to them, and even the dead are raised. So what is left out? 'The Lord sets captives free', as we read in today's psalm. The Messiah will also bring prisoners out of the dungeon (Isaiah 42:7; 49:9; 61:1). Presumably it is the Messianic work in which John has the most immediate personal interest as he languishes in Herod's prison, and it is strange that it is now omitted.

There is a strong tendency, dating from the very earliest days of Christianity, to see John the Baptist and Jesus as opponents rather than as partners in a common task. It is a tendency difficult to resist and it can mislead us significantly. Seeing them as collaborators in a common project helps us to understand what is happening here: they are learning together what the way would involve, what it would mean for each of them. Only a short time later Jesus himself will be in a similar situation (cold feet? a time of doubt?) when he falls to the ground in the garden, his hands weary and his knees trembling. At that point in his story the Baptist is already dead and Jesus has nobody to call on, nobody to ask about the meaning of what is happening, except the Father. And he prays, 'let this cup pass me by'.

We celebrate John the Baptist as the one who prepared the way. Reflecting on his imprisonment and death we see that he prepared the way not just in the sense of introducing Jesus and then disappearing from the scene. He travelled the way before Jesus and in that sense he prepared it. They announce the same message, 'repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand' (Matthew 3:2; 4:17). They meet the same fate, an unjust judgement and a cruel execution. And the arrest of John - all the gospels testify to this - is the signal that the time has come for Jesus to take the lead. A new and final phase of his public ministry begins.

It is all too easy to set John the Baptist and Jesus in opposition to each other. Our minds, which love to 'dualise', do this very quickly. John is about fear and threat, a God to be feared, and Jesus is about mercy and comfort, a God to be loved. Is that not so? No, it is not so. They belong together, for each one's mission is part of one complex moment, the definitive visitation of God for the judgement of this world.

This is the message realised and taught by the Baptist and by Jesus. Salvation comes about not by being removed from human experience - we are not saved from being human - but it comes about rather through human experience - it is God who is, in a term liked by some theologians, 'humanissimus', most human, and He has sent the Son to make us also more human.

What is promised is not a gentle, magical change, some kind of replacement. What is promised is a strengthening of us for what is going on, a refinement in the fire of judgement and love, a new power established where our hearts of stone used to be so that human experience, while remaining human, is radically transformed. Just as courage does not remove fear but enables us to act in spite of fear, so faith, hope and love do not replace human experience but enable us to believe, and to hope, and to love, God from within this human experience, even through death.

We believe in Jesus and not in John. But John is forever the one pointing us in that direction, introducing us to Jesus and to his message. He does it not just with his finger but by his own preaching. He does it not just by his words and his strange way of living but through his passion and death which prefigure the saving passion and death of the One he served.

It may seem like a sombre reflection for Gaudete Sunday. But the joy we are promised is not superficial or shallow. It is a joy born where justice and love have engaged with, and have overcome, the deepest darkness and the strongest evil. It is therefore a joy that is profound and lasting, a joy that is full and complete.

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