A Word about the Readings
by Father Gethin
(The readings may be found here)
John the Baptist, who we meet in today’s Gospel, represents for us the whole spirit and character of this Advent season, and it is by way of encouraging and enlightening that character in each of us that Advent guides our steps toward the feast of our Lord’s Nativity. We come to the manger, as it were, by a renewal, and a clarifying, of the spirit of hope and humility that we find in John.
Almost by definition, this is a difficult and counter-intuitive process for us, just as John was a difficult and counter-cultural figure in his own time. The people went out to find him, and did not know what to think, or how to meet him: “What went ye out into the wilderness to see? a reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? a man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what went ye out for to see?” We can hear our Lord’s frustration with their unbelief and smallness of heart.
John is the only holy messenger who is ‘more than a prophet’, because only John lives out the entirety of his life turned to find and to announce the real appearing of the Messiah. His witness has no experience of God’s presence as a future event: everything for John is now—and it is that quality, that perseverance in hope, which never finds God’s goodness as a future reality, but always in the present, that marks John’s ministry. John does not foretell, he tells.
This is precisely the faithfulness, the devout focus, to which Advent calls us: “let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God”—”knowing the time”, said Paul two weeks ago, “that now it high time to awake out of sleep.” The call to repentance and preparation comes from the conviction that God is never far from us, and that we are always able—and so always should—set our own lives upon that holy reality. The wicked stewards in Christ’s parables behaved badly, squandering their master’s goods, because they convinced themselves he was absent from them. They imagined they had nothing to lose by mistreating their master’s fortune.
John’s conviction is just the opposite, and the point is set out with such beautiful poignance in today’s Gospel: “Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” No doubt to the unbelieving, small-hearted world this appears to be the sad spectacle of John’s final failure: even he could not maintain a hope deep enough to sustain his sorrows in prison. So it might seem, but nothing could be farther from the truth—and for us that truth must be clear, if we are to find the prize for which John laboured. John’s life was not a story absent from sorrow or anguish, indeed much of his earthly experience must have been filled with trials and sadness. The difference with John, his greatness, you may say, is his absolute devotion to the Messiah. So deep was his faithfulness that nothing existed for him, except in reference to Christ, including his doubts and fears. As St. Paul says, he “judges not his own self.” And so, in the midst of his suffering and uncertainty, he sends his followers, to bring his troubles to Jesus. That is the scale of hope that finds the way to Bethlehem.