Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC
Third Sunday of Advent-Year A - Sunday, December 11, 2016
In dark and difficult times, it can become easy to doubt God. Is God there? Does God care? Why does God let painful things happen to good people? Will the reign of God remove all these hardships from us? Where is this reign of God? And when do we get it?
Even great prophets can doubt God at times. John the Baptist seems to doubt Jesus when he ends up under Herod’s thumb.
John has been the messenger ahead of Jesus. He has had a tremendously successful ministry in his own right. He has seen the lamb of God and recognized him. As a matter of fact, even decades after the death of Jesus, Christians will still encounter disciples of John who haven’t yet heard of Jesus.
But for now, John the Baptist has fallen on hard times. His speaking truth to power has landed him in Herod’s prison. Prison in those times was a transitional space between exoneration, exile or execution. During the incarceration, friends and family could visit and were even expected to support the basic needs of the prisoner. It is likely that John’s disciples had repeated access to him during his time in prison. And John wonders. Is execution how it is supposed to end for him? Has he not seen the Messiah? Isn’t the Messiah supposed to bring an end to all the people’s sufferings at the hands of the domination system that rules in Palestine? Couldn’t the Messiah save him from his predicament?
So John sends word to Jesus to find out if he, John, made a mistake in considering Jesus the Messiah? Is Jesus simply another prophet setting the stage for the Messiah? And what is a Messiah anyway? There were as many understandings of what a Messiah was to be as there were forms of Judaism at the time. And Judaism in the first-century Mediterranean world was as diverse as Christianity is today.
Some saw the Messiah as a political, military ruler that would deliver the Jews from the Roman occupation and restore the kingdom of Israel to its supposed glory under the reign of David. In that perspective, John should not have perished in the gaols of a Roman vassal king. He should have been mightily delivered and called to great feats of glory in the company of the victorious Messiah.
It is not clear that John envisioned the Messiah that way but it must have been an appealing fantasy while being imprisoned and awaiting Herod’s good or bad will. Others saw the Messiah as an eschatological character that would bring an end to the status quo of the universe and usher in another transformed reality as the reign of God.
But Jesus chooses not to answer John’s messianic question directly. But he states what he is achieving instead, couching his deeds in language redolent of earlier prophets. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Isn’t that the Messiah that John longs for in his heart? A Messiah that heals, restores human dignity and integrity, restores fullness of life? His ministry to humanity runs deeper that political structures. He is transforming humanity, soul by soul. That is a Messiahship that is still ongoing today as the resurrected Jesus became Christ for all eternity. In the gospel according to Matthew, he started his public ministry saying ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
And indeed, it has come near. We are the instrument of that reign of God here and now. We need not worry about the fulfillment of that reign at the end of times. It could be tempting to cross our arms and say, we’ll wait for the end of times to take care of all of creation’s difficulties. We need to witness to the Christ today, in these places where we live, study or work. Even when things get hard and we wonder if God has left us in the lurch.
Christ himself did not choose the easy path of using God’s almighty power to remove our agency in the world and fix everything according to God’s best judgment. Or rather, in God’s best judgment, we have our agency in the world to learn the way of love and transform the world accordingly. With God’s help, we are to bring about the reign of God through our loving rather than our winning. Jesus did not win the race to power and riches in this world. But Christ won for all of us for all times.
Mind you, there are days I’d rather have the quick fix but in the end, I know God loves us too much to treat us as objects of his mercy. God would rather that we be the subjects of our lives and decide for ourselves how to bring about God’s reign on earth. Advent is not just four weeks before Christmas. Advent is the destiny of our lives. For and by the Love of God. Rejoice and have a Happy Advent.