In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Today’s Gospel lesson is full of pathos. We hear of St. John the Baptist – the Lord’s cousin, the great and final prophet of the Old Covenant, the one chosen by God to herald the coming of the Messiah. At the end of today’s Gospel, the Lord himself bears witness to John: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist;” but he goes on to say, “yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he,” (Matthew 11.11).
Considered with worldly eyes, we find John in today’s Gospel at the lowest point of his life. He has been arrested by Herod, and he is languishing in prison. Soon he will be beheaded to satisfy Herodias’ small-minded hankering for vengeance. He has reached, as it were, the winter of his life, the point of which Bl. John Henry Newman wrote, in one of my favorite of his sermons:
The days have come in which they have no pleasure; yet they would hardly be young again, could they be so by wishing it. Life… does not satisfy. Thus the soul is cast forward upon the future, and in proportion as its conscience is clear and its perception keen and true, does it rejoice solemnly that ‘the night is far spent, the day is at hand,’ that there are ‘new heavens and a new earth’ to come, though the former are failing; nay, rather that, because they are failing, it will ‘soon see the King in His beauty,’ and ‘behold the land which is very far off.’ These are feelings for holy men in winter and in age…
John knows that he is in trouble, that his life is in danger. Thus his “soul is cast forward upon the future…” And he sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11.3). While considered with worldly eyes, John is at the lowest point of his life; from the vantage point of eternity, John stands at the threshold of his greatest victory.
Knowing what must have been the exemplary clearness of John’s conscience, and the concomitant keenness and truth of its perception, many of the early Fathers and great teachers of the faith considered that so great a saint must have known that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and they looked for explanations other than wonder or ignorance, for John’s question.
For example, both St. Gregory the Great (6th century) and St. Jerome (4th – 5th century) suggest that John, knowing that he was about to inhabit the abode of the dead, was asking whether Jesus was he “that is to come” to the underworld to proclaim release to the righteous dead. St. Gregory says that it is “not that [John] doubted that [Jesus] was the Redeemer of the world, but he asks that he may know whether He who in His own person had come into the world, would in His own person descend also to the world below.”
Others of the Fathers suggested that John asked this question for the sake of his disciples. Knowing that the time of his own ministry was at an end, and that his disciples would soon be bereft of him, John sends some of them to Jesus, asking him “Are you he who is to come…” so that they – John’s disciples – might hear from the mouth of Jesus that Jesus was indeed the Christ whom John had announced. St. Hilary of Poitiers, for example, says that “John… is providing not for his own, but his disciples’ ignorance; that they might know that it was no other whom he had proclaimed, he sent them to see His works, that the works might establish what John had spoken; and that they should not look for any other Christ, than Him to whom His works had borne testimony.”
“‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ And Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.’”
I believe the great 20th century German Theologian, Romano Guardini, has best illuminated John’s context and his question: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Guardini writes:
It has been claimed that John did this for the sake of his disciples, that they might hear the confirmation from Jesus’ own lips. Possibly this is true; but it is also possible that John sent to Jesus for his own sake. If he did, it would by no means conflict with his calling. Often, naively, we imagine the illumination of a prophet as a fixed thing, as though he had only to behold, once, in order to know without wavering forever after; as though once gripped by the Spirit, he stood fast for all time. In reality even a prophet’s life is shaken by all storms and saddled with all weaknesses. At times the Spirit hoists him far above the heights of human accomplishment or being; then he beholds, drawing from his vision the power to unhinge history. At other times, the Spirit drops him, and back he plunges headlong into darkness and impotency, like [Elijah] in the desert when he flung himself down beneath a bush and begged for death…. Perhaps John did ask for his own sake; if this is true, what agonizing hours must have shaped that message to Jesus!
And Jesus replies in the affirmative. He is the one who is to come. Look for no other. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” And Jesus bears counter-witness to John: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist…”
John’s greatness lies, like that of the Blessed Virgin, in his pointing to the Lord; in saying “Not I; but Jesus.” Mary brings him into the world, and John brings him to the world’s attention. Guardini writes:
It was John’s mission – and greatness – to proclaim the advent of the kingdom. Nor was he in any way unworthy to do so, he who ‘even from his mother’s womb’ was filled with the Holy Spirit. It could only mean that his particular vocation was to lead the way to the promised realm, to direct others to it, but in some special sense to remain without. One is reminded of Moses close to death, standing on Mount Nebo and looking down on the Promised Land. He is not allowed to enter. Not until he has passed through death does he come into the true land of promise. For Moses this was punishment; he had failed in an hour of trial. For John it was not punishment but vocation. Everything in him cried out to be with Christ, in that kingdom of God about to dawn in Messianic abundance, ushering in the new creation. For us its bliss is unimaginable, but for the prophet, who had felt it deeply, it was the object of his most powerful longing. Yet he was not allowed to enter. No psychology, indeed no one who has not personally penetrated deep into the mystery of the divine will, can explain this. This side of death, John was to remain Precursor: herald of the kingdom.
Let us concentrate for a moment on his fate. He lies in prison, a powerless victim of wretched paltriness and fully aware of the death threatening him from Herodias’ hatred. Must not the knowledge of his own greatness have revolted against the apparent senselessness of it all? Surely his darkest hours came then, and with them danger of rebellion and doubt: Can he who allows such things to happen to his servants really be the Messiah?
If it was thus, the heart must overflow at the mystery of love demanding the utmost, yet so gently; so all-knowing in spite of the distance between them, so calmly trusting. Into the depths of John’s lowest hour then would Jesus’ word have been spoken: [“Blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”] The Lord knows his herald; knows his need. The message sent by the mouth of his uncomprehending disciples into the darkness of the dungeon is a divine message.
We share John’s vocation. We stand on the brink of the Lord’s self-disclosure, ever imminent, never yet fulfilled. Our task is to stand with John, rejoicing at the Bridegroom’s voice; and to say with John, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” (John 3.30). And in the darkness of our world, in the dark moments of our lives, our vocation is again with John: to receive the Lord’s reassurance: “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me,” to allow our gaudium, our joy, to be always in the Lord, in standing and hearing his voice, and to allow our crowning achievement to be fidelity to his word to the very end.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.