holy cross sermon for epiphany 3 / year a / january 23, 2011

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today’s Gospel lesson holds before us the call of the Lord’s first disciples. We pick up where we left off last week – with John the Baptist, who had borne witness to Jesus when Jesus came onto the public scene. But now we hear that John has been arrested by Herod, and we know that with his arrest, his ministry has come to a close, and that soon he will be dead, beheaded by Herod.

This end of the ministry of St. John the Baptist marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry – the close of the Old Testament, and the opening of the New. The whole history of Israel, in a sense, builds up to this moment, and the whole history of the Church springs from it.

St. Matthew says:

When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Caper’na-um by the sea, in the territory of Zeb’ulun and Naph’tali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“The land of Zeb’ulun and the land of Naph’tali,

toward the sea, across the Jordan,

Galilee of the Gentiles –

the people who sat in darkness

have seen a great light,

and for those who sat in the region and shadow of

death

light has dawned.”

(Matthew 4.12-16)

Remigius of Auxerre notices a practical lesson for us to draw from Jesus’ move from Nazareth to Galilee. He says that Jesus made this move, “that he might enlighten more by his preaching and miracles. Thus leaving an example to all preachers that they should preach at a time and in places where they may do good to as many as possible.”

And St. John Chrysostom associates the Lord’s departure from Nazareth to dwell by the sea of Galilee, with his laying the foundation of the Church, in the calling of the Apostles, who, after the death of Jesus, will go throughout the known world preaching the Gospel. Chrysostom says that Jesus “departed from Judea… seeking… to fish for those teachers of the world who [then] dwelt in Galilee” – i.e. the Apostles.

“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,’” (Matthew 4.17).

I often say that Jesus preaches the nearness of the Kingdom by means of demonstrating his own nearness to his hearers, because – as I like to say – Jesus is himself the Kingdom of God, the physical location where God’s will is carried into force, which illuminates how being incorporated into his Body means entering into the Kingdom, and by extension why, as St. Cyprian of Carthage said: outside the Church there is no salvation. I.e. because the Church is his body (Ephesians 1.22-23), and he is the Kingdom.

[And] As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zeb’edee and John his brother, in the boat with Zeb’edee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

A medieval commentary called the Glossa Ordinaria says that Jesus “rightly goes to fishing places, when about to fish for fishermen,” which brings us to one of the deeper meanings of this passage. Jesus calls each of us to follow him. Notice what the text says about those who follow him: “immediately” they leave their former station and follow him. So with Peter and Andrew: “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” And with James and John: “immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”

When Christ calls to us, our task is to root our attention, our perspective, so firmly in him, that all else becomes contextualized by his hegemony over our lives. An anonymous church father in the 500’s says “there are three things which we must leave who would come to Christ; carnal actions, which are signified in the fishing nets; worldly substance, [signified] in the ship; and parents, signified in their father.” Being a disciple of Jesus means that we can no longer do whatever we want, and it could mean alienation from those whom we love. I have had friends who have quit jobs that they could not reconcile with the obedience they owed to Christ.

The realization of what the Lord’s disciples lost in order to follow him should be a convicting one. What am I willing to lose for the sake of Jesus? Suppose being his disciple meant I lost my house, or my car, my job, or my position in life? The predicament is more difficult, in a sense, for contemporary Americans, because the choices are more subtle, and the possibility of keeping up appearances – and so deceiving even ourselves – is more real. Its one thing to be told to renounce Christ or die, like St. Agnes, or St. Vincent, or St. Fabian, whose feasts were last week. But in a go-along-and-get-along culture like our own, more often the choices fall along the lines of accepting a promotion that will mean working on Sundays, or allowing ourselves to become involved in a personal relationship that overreaches the Gospel’s parameters, or failing to practice our piety publicly – to say nothing of obeying the Lord’s mandate positively to lead others to him – in the name of a misplaced broad-minded liberality.

Very often we prefer to remain in our boats, with our nets and our Father, Zebedee –  because its legal, or because it doesn’t hurt anybody, or because no one will notice if we aren’t in Jesus’ entourage, or aren’t in it one Sunday – or simply because the way is hard and the gate is narrow. But, as GK Chesterton said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

So, in the words of the collect for today, we ask that the Lord would “give us grace… to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and [to] proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works…”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

NOTES

Chrysostom: he departed from Judea both to soften Jewish animosity, and to fulfill a prophecy, seeking moreover to fish for those masters [teachers] of the world who dwelt in Galilee.

Remigius: He left one, viz. Nazareth, that he might enlighten more by his preaching and miracles. Thus leaving an example to all preachers that they should preach at a time and in places where they may do good, to as many as possible.

Pseudo-Chrysostom: Christ’s Gospel should be preached by him who can control his appetites, who contemns the goods of this life, and desires not empty honors. From this time began Jesus to preach, that is, after having been tempted, He had overcome hunger in the desert, despised covetousness on the mountain, rejected ambitious desires in the temple.

Ibid. – … He would have made John be lightly accounted of, and John’s preaching would have been thought superfluous by the side of Christ’s teaching; as when the sun rises at the same time with the morning star, the star’s brightness is hid.

Chrysostom: In this commencement moreover he speaks nothing severe, nothing burdensome, as John had concerning the axe laid to the root of the condemned tree, and the like; but he puts first things merciful, preaching the glad tidings of the kingdom of heaven.

Gloss: He rightly goes to fishing places, when about to fish for fishermen.

Pseudo-Chrysostom: As he who casts his net into the water knows not what fishes he shall take, so the teacher casts the net of the divine word upon the people, not knowing who among them will come to God. Those whom God shall stir abide in his doctrine.

Ibid. – Fishers of men, that is, teachers, that with the net of God’s word you may catch men out of this world of storm and danger, in which men do not walk but are rather borne along, the Devil by pleasure drawing them into sin where men devour one another as the stronger fishes do the weaker, withdrawn from hence they may live upon the land, being made members of Christ’s body.

sermon for epiphany 2 / year a: discipleship and the call of christ

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw…

Today’s gospel lesson relates the calling of the Lord’s first disciples, one of them being the apostle Andrew. Like just about everything in the Scripture, there is a deeper significance to this story, which in lies, at least in part, in its being the story of every disciple – the story of discipleship itself. Today’s Gospel shows the invariable pattern of call and response that characterizes the vocation of every Christian who hears Jesus, and then decides to follow him.

The passage opens with the witness of John the Baptist. We’ve heard a lot about John the Baptist in recent weeks. He was the forerunner of the Messiah, the last of the Old Testament prophets. With the ministry and witness of John, the time is fulfilled, and there is nothing left for God to reveal, except for God himself. The time of figures and typologies and symbols has come to a close, the Old Covenant itself is about to be fulfilled, and the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

A few chapters after today’s reading (Jn. 3), John attests to this fullness of time – and thus to the end of his own ministry – in moving words of self-deprecation and witness to Jesus. John says: “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease,” (John 3.29-30). John is not the Savior. He is the Savior’s friend. He bears witness to the Savior and to his salvation. Indeed John understands this witness to be the very heart of his own ministry. It was therefore a part of the completeness of his joy when some of his own disciples leave him to follow Jesus.

“John was standing with two of his disciples; and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”

John is the bright torch whose light is unnecessary in the brightness of the dawn. Yet he is so given to his provisional role in God’s plan – his eyes and his expectation are so firmly fixed on Jesus, that the end of his own vocation is inconsequential – and indeed the advent of Jesus will mean the end of John’s ministry. But that is why John was sent. He is the friend of the Bridegroom.

And here is the first great, spiritual lesson for us this morning: that authentic, life-giving teaching will ALWAYS point to Jesus. It will not point to itself or to anything else. It will show Jesus – it will SEEK to show Jesus, to glorify him. It will be self-effacing in the face of Jesus. Always and only Jesus.

Anyone who pays attention, anyone with an open heart, and an open mind, anyone earnestly looking for the TRUTH will find authentic teaching leading him to follow Jesus. And that’s exactly what happens in today’s reading. John was a true teacher, a GREAT teacher – a prophet, and the greatest of prophets. And precisely for this reason, his disciples, who stand and hear his teaching and listen to his testimony, they hear him cry out, “Behold the Lamb of God!” – and they LEAVE HIM, and they follow Jesus.

John saw Jesus and cried out “Behold the Lamb of God!” and “The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”

Authentic Christian teaching bears witness to Jesus, and leads us to follow after Jesus. And notice what happens next: The disciples followed Jesus, and the first two words of the very next sentence in the reading: “Jesus turned…” When we wake up to our hunger for the Truth, a hunger which exists in every human heart, and when we begin to search earnestly for God’s salvation, to follow behind Jesus, not knowing much yet: Jesus turns. He discloses himself to us. He shows us his face. As the great scholar of the 8th century, Alcuin of York, puts it: “The disciples followed behind [Jesus’] back in order to see Him, [but they] did not see His face. So He turns round, and, as it were, lowers His majesty, that they might be enabled to behold His face.” And not only does he show us his face, but he SPEAKS to us. WE had been questing after HIM, and yet he initiates the conversation:

“Jesus turned and saw them following him, and said to them, ‘What do you seek?’”

This should remind us of a general principle about God: when we make a decision to seek God, to look for him earnestly, he comes to us – he himself closes the distance yet separating us from him. As in the parable of the Prodigal Son: as soon as the errant son decides to return to his Father and to ask for forgiveness, it says, “while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him,” (Luke 15.20).

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks the disciples running after him “What do you seek?” The Lord is not looking for information: he knows everything. So this question serves two purposes. Firstly, is an opportunity for the disciples to ask themselves what they seek, what it is they want. Sometimes pious people can get so caught up in trying to “do God’s will” that they forget what it is that THEY want. And this is often God’s question to us: “What do you really want? What do you seek?” Scripture says that God will “give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37.4). But first we have to figure out what those desires are. And this, like much else in the spiritual life, is the work of prayer and meditation.

“Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, ‘What do you seek?’” Secondly, the Lord’s question is an invitation for his disciples to approach him, to come closer. He WANTS to speak with us; he wants to commune with us. He wants to give himself to us.

“What do you seek?” And they said to him “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And he said to them “Come and see.”

When we seek God, out of an open heart, out of an earnest desire to know him, then he will reveal himself to us, he will turn to us, he will invite us to speak with him, and he does not stop there: he invites us to his own home. “Teacher, where are you staying?” And he said to them “Come and see.” And they came and saw, and they stayed with him.

Where does Jesus dwell? If he invites to the place where he dwells, where is that place? The great teachers of Christianity have said repeatedly: he dwells in our hearts. St. Augustine of Hippo pointed out that this whole process could not even be undertaken to begin with, were Jesus not already with us. It takes God’s help even to call out to him for help. The Lord’s invitation to “come and see” is an invitation to discover that he is closer to us than we are to ourselves – that he has been with us all along.

And what is the last thing they do? The very end of today’s Gospel lesson: they go and tell others. Andrew goes and finds his brother, Simon, and says to him “We have found the Messiah.” They know that they are not the only ones who yearn for God to reveal himself. They have friends and relatives who share their longing for God. So they go and become witnesses [in Greek: martyrs].

….

The first thing I must ask myself is: do I really want to know God? W.H. Auden pointed out that much of the time, mankind frets itself, “dreading to find its Father lest it find / the Goodness it has dreaded is not good.” Often in the early stages of earnest seeking, we develop a feeling of unworthiness, a sense of our own culpability. But we must guard against the conclusion that therefore God is uninterested in us. The good news is that although we are indeed unworthy, that God loves us anyway, that he thirsts for us, that he was willing to suffer and die in order to be with us.

If you really do want to know God, if you are yearning for him to reveal himself to you, then what do you do? You listen to the authentic testimony of those who bear witness to Jesus. You make a conscious decision: I want to see Jesus. And you disclose that decision to God in prayer: “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Prayer is absolutely essential. Prayer is how we run after Jesus. We begin to call out to him, every day, in our hearts. We begin to seek after him in the Bible. We go to the places he has promised to be: we have recourse to the blessed sacrament, where with the eyes of faith we “behold the lamb of God, behold him that takes away the sins of the world.” And we take time to open our hearts to him in prayerful humility. We focus our attention. We ask the Lord to show himself to us.

I firmly believe that when our hearts are ready, when we have come to a place of earnest and open desire for the Truth of God’s revelation, and then when we call out to God in prayer from that place of that earnest and open desire, then he will answer us. He will turn towards us, he will himself close the distance yet separating us from him, and he will speak to us in our hearts.

Lastly: what do you do if you take an honest look into your own heart, and you don’t find that earnest and open desire for God’s truth. And sometimes, for some of us, if we’re honest, that desire just isn’t there. What do you do? If you would like to have that desire, if you know you SHOULD have it, because it is a good thing, because indeed it’s the BEST thing – then ask God to give it to you. He always gives good gifts. So ask him to open your heart, and to give you and earnest desire for him. And he will give it to you.

Jesus “said to them, ‘Come and see.’ [And] They came and saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him…”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Easter Sunday, 2010

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“When they went in, they did not find the body.” (Luke 24.3) “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15.20)

Today is the memory of an event, the re-presentation of an event: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Two thousand years ago, in a tomb hollowed out of the rock of a hillside outside Jerusalem, Jesus rose from the dead. He is alive and reigns forever at the right-hand of Power.

When the myrrh-bearing women went to the tomb around dawn on the first day of the week, they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty; and they found themselves in the company of angels who asked them a question: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24.5) This is a question we might well ask ourselves. Why do we seek the living among the dead?

It is fitting that the resurrection of Jesus should have taken place in the secret anonymity of the tomb, a place of darkness, without witnesses, the place where we hide from ourselves the victims of the violence out of which we construct our personal and social histories and our self-determination.

The resurrection of Jesus does not belong to the domain of history. As with his conception in the dark silence of Mary’s womb, sealed by her virginity, so too now his resurrection in the darkness and silence of the tomb sealed by a stone, heaven and earth are joined and man is reconciled to God. We must not say, as some do, that because the resurrection of Jesus is properly ahistorical that it therefore did not happen, that this story is an invention meant to give life meaning, or to give credence to a new ideology. The resurrection is an eternal event, localized historically, taking place in darkness, silence, and anonymity, but now the wellspring of all shape, all wholeness, all light and life.

As Hans Urs von Balthasar has said, “as if weariness… and the uttermost decay of power were melting at creation’s outer edge, were beginning to flow, because flowing is perhaps a sign and a likeness of weariness which can no longer contain itself, because everything that is strong and solid must in the end dissolve into water. But hadn’t it – in the beginning – also been born from water? And is this wellspring in the chaos, this trickling weariness, not the beginning of a new creation?”

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

Christ is risen from the dead, and we must find a new place in our hearts, in our lives, for the story of his resurrection. The motto of our diocese is “We are resurrection people” – which has always sounded trite to me, but which must now be true. We must find a place for this truth within us; we must appropriate it by faith. We ARE resurrection people.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who by his own admission, tried and failed to believe the resurrection, said: “Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, rather: believe, through thick and thin, which you can do only as the result of a LIFE. Here you have a narrative, don’t take the same attitude to it as you take to other historical narratives! Make a quite different place in your life for it.” (“Culture and Value” p. 33) I realize that this point is prone to misunderstanding, so let me be clear: Jesus rose from the dead. He was murdered; his body was placed in a tomb; and on the morning of the third day, the tomb was empty; not because his body had been stolen, but because Jesus, in the flesh, rose from the dead.

Let us not forget that this was the confession around which the earliest Christians organized themselves and recognized one another, and that it remains so to the present day. Christ is raised from the dead. Every one of the apostles (except one, who died of old age) chose to be tortured and murdered rather than deny this claim.

Christ is raised from the dead. But we cannot hear this with the same attitude we bring to our listening to the daily news on CNN. We cannot read this story like we read a newspaper. If we do, and if it matters to us, we will either become fundamentalists, or kibitzing heretics. This is not that kind of story. We must “make a quite different place in [our lives] for it.”

Christ has been raised from the dead. How then are we to receive this news? It must be planted, like a seed, in our hearts, in our lives, there to be nourished and watered until it springs up within us, bearing the fruits of divine life, until we become merciful, loving, witnesses of peace, who hunger and thirst for righteousness. And if it is to be planted in our hearts, that means that we must till the soil of our hearts; we must cleanse and purify ourselves. If the seed of divine life is to grow within us and bear fruit, we must confess our sins.

Let us remind ourselves of the reality of what we are here to remember. Christ has been raised from the dead. He was dead, but he is now alive forever. What DOES this mean for us? What does it mean for YOU?

When the risen Lord appeared to the disciples in the upper room, when Thomas was not there, they later said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” It is in the light of the resurrection that the IDENTITY of Jesus becomes manifest to those who have followed him. He is the Christ, the One long-awaited by the people of God, the anointed; he is the Son of God. He is the Lord.

When the earliest disciples called Jesus “the Lord” in the light of Easter morning, they were making a bold claim. They were using the same word for this man that the Old Testament had used for the one God, who created the heavens and the earth. Well, therefore, is he confessed as Lord in the light of the resurrection, when the fruit of his death springs up from the earth, on the eighth day, after the Sabbath-rest of God, when (now) the creation is at last complete, and God has been joined to man in an indissoluble union of flesh.

The Lord is risen indeed. And we must make a new place for this news, for this risen life, within ourselves. It must make a difference to us. He must not simply be “God” or “the Paragon”, or the “great teacher”, but he must be “MY Lord and MY God” (John 20.28). Being his disciple must no longer be a cultural association, for his death and resurrection have destroyed the very possibility of self-determination, of inventing for ourselves new histories out of our striving. If he is to be MY Lord, that means that his story must become MY story; my origin and my destination must be in him; my fulfillment, my joy, my peace, and the object of all my desiring must be in him; the shape and direction of my life – the WAY that I live – must be centered and formed by him, with him, in him, and for him.

Von Balthasar said, “In the future, all shape must arise out of [the] gaping void [of his tomb], all wholeness must draw its strength from [his] creating wounds.” From the scars in his hands and feet and side, which have become tokens of the victory Jesus has won once and for all, two thousand years ago. But that same victory must now take place WITHIN ME. Christ must conquer me if I am to belong to him.

Either he will be my Lord, either I will belong to him and live for him, or I will belong to the grave over which he has triumphed, to the old world destined for judgment, under bondage, a fugitive slave of the gods of Egypt, forever lost among the dead.

The Lord is risen indeed. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Do not approach the resurrection of Christ as you approach other events of the past. Make an entirely different place for it in your life.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

For the Third Sunday of Advent:

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:

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 and St. Jerome suggest that John, knowing that he was about to inhabit the abode of the dead, was asking whether Jesus were 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 lives, our vocation is again with John: to receive the Lord’s reassurance: “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me,” 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.

%d bloggers like this: