Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another? (St. Matthew xi. 2)
We have said that Advent season is all about our preparing for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ at Christmas time. Our preparation is rooted in history and hope. Historically speaking Jesus Christ, the Desire of God, was made flesh some two-thousand years ago in ancient Palestine. The historical Jesus began to summon and carry followers to God’s Kingdom long ago, beginning in time and space through His Incarnation or enfleshment. As the Holy Spirit began to touch and move people through Him, He initiated the pilgrimage of man’s reconciliation to God the Father. And He desires to do the same today. History has been in the process of being swallowed up into eternity ever since God the Father called Abraham out from Ur of the Chaldees. Having overcome all potential obstacles to communion with our Heavenly Father in His Son, the Father continues to send His love down from Heaven into a people whose hope is their ultimate reconciliation to Him. And the Ascended Christ wants to keep making history as He comes into time and space to be made flesh through the indwelling of His Spirit.
We have a future, and our destiny is to be with God the Father. In today’s Gospel we are directed and charged to prepare for that future in a very specific way by John the Baptist. John’s mission is one of preparation for the coming of the active meaning and presence of Jesus Christ, and so his life is a perfect paradigm and pattern for our Advent preparation. That life might be summarized in his own words: He must increase, and I must decrease. (St. John iii. 30) John the Precursor, John the Preparer, is on a mission to lead us into that spiritual state that makes room for the coming of Jesus Christ. Yet, he knows that there can be no room for Him in us until we have been emptied of our sins. Our sin takes up too much space! Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (St. Matthew iii. 2) His voice is one of many calling us to make room in our hearts for Jesus Christ. John lives in the wilderness, and in this wilderness John discovers himself. He sees himself clearly in a place far removed from relations to other people and things. Here he discovers his sins and his need to repent of them. The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice even with joy and singing. (Isaiah 35, 1,2) John Baptist is the Herald who invites us to confess the cold, hard, stark truth about ourselves. As Romano Guardini writes, The herald proclaims his message with authority, and what he says is framed in terms of a command. There is always a sense of urgency in what he announces. Though it may conflict with what is in men’s thoughts and interrupts them in their business, he cares less to conciliate them than secure their attention. Our confrontation with ourselves is essential. Without it, there can be no room in us for Jesus Christ.
Repentance is the acknowledgment of our self-willed alienation from God. Repentance involves the naming and claiming of whatever thoughts, words and deeds crowd out God’s will in our souls. Repentance is an emptying that creates a necessary void within us, a barren wilderness, in and through which the coming Lord can begin to create and make new life. Thus, we must be emptied, voided, and erased of ourselves in order that Jesus may begin to generate His new life, light, and love in our hearts. We must be un-selfed or emptied so that in a purely potential state Christ might begin to redeem the raw materials of our being.
And yet how can we do this? It sounds so much easier than it is. Repentance is difficult. What we are speaking about is not being sorry to others for sins committed against others. What we are talking about is being convicted by the Holy Spirit of our sin against God. Oswald Chambers tells us that, when the Holy Spirit rouses a man’s conscience and brings him into the presence of God, it is not his relationship with other men that bothers him, but his relationship with God –‘against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned and done this evil in Thy sight.’(Ps. li, 4; My Utmost, p.342) We cannot really become the space that is prepared to welcome the meaning and purpose of Christ’s coming to us until our carefully contrived worlds of respectable goodness come crashing down. (Idem) What we have made and what we protect jealously are in the way. Our good works, our law-abiding and moral habits are in the way. Being satisfied by what we do for others is in the way. Natural goodness and pious habits are not going to save us. If we rely upon a self-conscious satisfaction for what we do, our arrogance and pride are taking up too much space in our hearts. There can be no room from the coming Jesus in our souls. Rather, with John the Baptist, we must say, [There is one] who coming after me is preferred before me, the latchet of whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose…Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world…(John i. 27, 29) He must increase and I must decrease. It is not ‘I’. I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord. (St. John i. 23) With John the Baptist we must desire our own undoing completely before enough space can be freed up so that Jesus Christ can begin to form and mold His new life in us. With John Baptist we remain in sin if we cease to understand the value of repentance. With him we must examine ourselves and see if we have forgotten how to be truly repentant. (Ibid)
And this means that we must be found faithful to Christ in following the way of reflection and repentance in good times and bad. We find the extreme of bad times in today’s Gospel. John Baptist is in prison awaiting execution and probably has been tortured severely. John is near death and his role as Herald and Forerunner is coming to an end. He is more likely than not confused about what he has been doing to prepare for Messiah’s coming. He sends his disciples to ask Jesus, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? (St. Matthew 11. 3) Jesus’ response is not what natural man might expect. They are sent back with no promise of John’s liberation from prison or of Herod’s demise. Rather He sends them back with news of a reality that he can only participate in vicariously or by way of rejoicing in others’ healing. Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Ibid, 4,5) John the Baptist will not saved from impending execution. And even against it all, he must rejoice in what Jesus has come to do for John’s neighbors. It seems cold comfort indeed. But Jesus knows that John is sufficiently emptied of himself to receive the good tidings of great joy that shall be to all people that are already pouring forth from the His heavenly heart into the suffering of John.
Jesus goes on to say: And, blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. (Idem) A closer translation would be whosoever shall not be scandalized by me, as Monsignor Knox suggests. The idea is that, as he says, blessed is the man who shall not be suddenly out of his stride, just when everything seemed to be going all right, by running up against an unforeseen snag or obstacle…or by falling into a trap. In other words, blessed is the man who is faithful come what may, despite all manner of unforeseen drawbacks. (Knox: The Epistles and Gospels, p. 16) Blessed is John Baptist into whose self-denial and self-abnegation Jesus can enter with the spiritual hope that will save all men through all times and in all conditions.
Christ goes on to show that His coming is most severely tested and tried by the condition that John Baptist is called to endure. 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? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. (Ibid, 7-10) What should we expect if we follow John the Baptist’s call to repentance? Unwavering faith. Utter unworldliness. Suffering. Death. To repent is to empty oneself. It means that every inch of my being must be sacrificed to God in death. Can this Jesus who is the one that should come really intend that I should suffer in this way? Can a loving and compassionate God demand such agony of soul as a condition for His coming? Jesus’ answer is a gentle but firm, merciful but unwavering Yes. Blessed is he who is not scandalized and outraged by the insistence of this severe mercy. Jesus says that those who follow Him must die. They may, like John Baptist, die at the hands of envious and wicked men, but at any rate they must die to anyone or anything that opposes Jesus’ coming love.
Jesus tells us this morning that John’s way is the right way. John invites us into the wilderness of repentance, and then from the world’s prison-house he directs us to Jesus. Both are spaces of stillness. As Romano Guardini puts it:
Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life, the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being all there, receptive, alert, ready. There is nothing inert or oppressive about it. Attentiveness –that is the clue to the stillness in question. The stillness before Christ.
We have a future, if we embrace John Baptist’s stillness. Only in stillness can we know ourselves and repent, that he may increase, and we may decrease. Only in stillness can the severe mercy of God begin to un-self us and bring us into death. Only then, with John, will we know that God’s coming Word made flesh suffers far more than we can imagine, so that we may be called the children of God, and hope for a future of eternal union with Him. Amen.