Third Sunday of Advent – December 12, 1971 – CNR
The question of John the Baptist we have heard recorded in today’s reading plays an extremely important role in the development of Matthew’s Gospel. Earlier chapters presented both the preaching of Jesus (the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7) and his miracles (chapters 8-9). And the whole unit of material leads to the question John asks, “Are you ‘He who is to come’ or are we to look for another?” It is the key question about Jesus of Nazareth; here it is asked of Jesus, but later it will be Jesus himself who asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15)
But John’s question, for Matthew, does not concern only the significance of Jesus. For just before his account of this incident, Matthew records Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples: “Go out and proclaim, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is upon you.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out devils.” (Mt 10:7-8) So it is also the ministry of the disciples, of the Church, that is questioned by John; the significance of the Church also hangs on Jesus’ reply.
The link between the two questions is obvious and immediate. For the Church makes sense only if Jesus makes sense; in the language of today’s reading, the Church is those persons who “see and hear,” who dc not find Jesus a “stumbling-block.” And in the next chapters of Matthew’s Gospel the line of division that Jesus causes among men is illustrated in a series of ways, beginning with the account that ends our reading today, in which Jesus distinguishes between John the Baptist, “more than a prophet,” and the “least in the kingdom of heaven” who nonetheless is greater than John.
The appeal to the miracles of Jesus, then, is not an appeal to proofs which demonstrate beyond question that Jesus is “He who is to come.” For the possibility remains that John or others could find Jesus a “stumbling-block.” Men can look and look and never see; listen and listen and never hear. And Jesus will say as an act of thanksgiving to the disciples, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” (Mt 13:16-17) It is faith as blessing that enables one to see and hear in Jesus and in the Church the fulfilment of the splendid vision of Isaiah when God “comes to save us.”
I am not sure that John’s question is not also our own: is Jesus the one for whom we hope or must we wait for another? It is the question for us, for it is the question of our faith, and on faith the whole business of our Christian living rests. We make no sense as a Christian body, if Jesus is not “He who is to come.” And the resolution of the question remains the same for us as for John and for everyone else whom Jesus asked to look and listen. For beyond every proposed proof, every evidence in favor of Jesus, there remains the fact that it is not “flesh and blood” that reveal Jesus to us, but “the Father in heaven.” It is he who gives us not only to look but also to see, not only to listen but also to hear; it is by his gift that Jesus is not a stumbling-block, but the rock on which to build a life.
All of which is to say that we are blind men whose eyes need to be opened, deaf men whose ears need to be un-stopped. And to believe in Jesus is no less a miracle than the signs Isaiah foretold and Jesus fulfilled. We gather here because we have seen and heard, and in a gathering for thanksgiving, it is good for us to include in our gratitude the wonder that is our faith in Jesus, that we should be included among those “born into the kingdom of God.” It is not the whole of our Christian lives, surely, but it is its beginning and its basis; and Advent is a time for regaining our beginning, as we prepare for the celebration of the appearance of the love of God for man.
Third Sunday in Advent—December 11, 1977–St. Rose, Gaithersberg
The point of the Gospel-scene today, so far as we are able to go back beyond it to the relations between John the Baptist and Jesus, turns on the character of the reign of God which both proclaimed was at hand. John’s preaching contained a fierce dimension of discrimination and judgement. Last week we heard his words: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that is not fruitful will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” He was addressing a “brood of vipers” who would not escape “the wrath to come.”
Jesus came preaching, as John had, that “the reign of God is at hand; repent and believe the Good News.” But John’s question from prison seems to have been prompted because Jesus presented that reign as first of all a reign of grace, of God’s forgiveness of sin and acceptance of sinners, of repentance as a response to unmerited love rather than to feared judgment. John’s question, then, is a genuine one, “Are you ‘He who is to come’” or must we look for another?”
Jesus’ reply is a tissue of Old Testament passages, such as the one that serves us today as the first reading. It appeals to what the scholars today call “the Book of Comfort,” the prophet’s promise to Israel that their God would bring them back from exile: “Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you: Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like the stag, and the tongue of the dumb will sing.” If John sees such deeds, being accomplished through Jesus, deeds that embody the coming reign, then let him answer his own question and not stumble over the Gospel of grace and mercy.
The difference between John and Jesus exemplifies a contrast that often appears in the Gospels. Think of the father and the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son, of the owner and the workers who had worked all day in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple. All of these raise the question of the nature of the Gospel-dispensation and, finally, the question of the character of our God in his dealings with us. To move from John to Jesus is to move from religion as a set of commands undertaken out of obedience for a motive of fear and in the hope of reward, to religion as, first of all, God’s act, initiated by him out of love, and, then, requiring a response whose first motive is gratitude and whose inner character is love and communion. And to accept the reign which Jesus announced and began to realize is to derive all one’s chief responsibilities from a fundamental situation of comfort and peace.
Advent is the season of hope, and hope is a virtue for the time between promise and fulfilment. We do not hope for what we already possess, St. Paul said; and in Advent we are to consider what we have still to look forward to on the basis of Jesus’ promise. As the far horizon of our hope, there is the return of Jesus and the completion of God’s good work. And, in-between, there are all the other possible futures which Christ’s promises permit us to hope for. They are, basically, promises of a new freedom, the assurance that things need not be what they have been, that we need not be what we have been, that eyes that have been blind can see and deaf ears can hear and the dumb can learn to sing and the lame to walk and run. There is no one of us here to whom those promises may not speak: which of us does not often refuse to see or hear? who of us does not feel crippled in some respects? how many words do we not have the freedom to say to one another? Those are questions for Advent, and, the blessing of today’s reading is, they can arise out of hope, not just out of fear, and a hope that does not disappoint because of what we know of Jesus already and because, surely, all of us have in some measure already experienced something of his liberating power in our lives–else why would we be here?
The challenge of this liturgy is the challenge which Jesus posed to John: can you place your hope in such a God and in such a reign? or must you continue to stumble along, unwilling to live out of such freedom as such love demands? Let us face the challenge, knowing that we celebrate the season of promise and hope and look forward to the great feast of God’s free self-gift to us. Let us hear the prophet say to us and be ready to say to one another:
Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
Say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication,
with divine recompense he comes to save you.
THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT – DECEMBER 13, 1992 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
The Gospel account of the inquiry of John the Baptist to Jesus may reflect tensions in the early years of Christianity between the disciples of the Baptist and disciples of Christ. This tension may go back to the ministry of the Baptist itself. Last week we heard Matthew’s description of John’s message as one of warning and threat: “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that is not fruitful will be cut down and thrown into the fire…. His winnowing-fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing-floor, and gather his grain into the barn, but the chaff he will burn in unquenchable fire.” But when Jesus came, his message was different; it was an announcement of a reign of grace. And so the question arose: “Are you ‘He who is to come’, or must we look for another?”
This was not the last time this question would arise. The contrast between the two messages reflects two differing emphases in people’s appreciation of Christianity. One of them speaks first of commandment or obligation, calls for obedience, and either promises reward or threatens punishment. The other speaks first of grace, of an unmerited gift of God, and only then goes on to speak of the response required of those so favored. On the first view, the commandments are so many steps on a ladder by which we climb towards God, reaching communion with him at the end. For the second view, there is no need of a ladder, because God has already descended to us and invites us to reflect or echo the love he has already given.
The answer Jesus gives to the disciples of the Baptist invites them into the world defined by the second view. Echoing the splendid vision we heard in our first reading from Isaiah, Jesus tells them: “Go back and tell John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, dead men rise to life, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” The miracles of Jesus here become not only signs but sacraments –realizations–of the redemption he has come to bring. And when Jesus adds: “Blessed are those who find no stumbling-block in me,” he is inviting John’s disciples to enter into the “joy and gladness” of those who recognize what is happening: “Here is your God, he comes to save you.”
This is the wonder of grace for which we should be preparing ourselves during this Advent season. I say the wonder of this grace, because it should be wonderful: we should be wonder-full. It was a cause of wonder to the Baptist; a wonder that prompted a genuine question from him: “Are you ‘He who is to come’, or must we look for another?” From the other side of the event of Christ, and after two thousand years of the announcement of his grace, we perhaps are tempted to take it for granted. What a terrible thing it is–to take grace for granted–what a contradiction in terms!
What is taken for granted is not recognized as grace; what is grace cannot be taken for granted. Grace is a free gift. We have this experience in our own human relationships: to receive the love of another person is to be blessed by another’s freedom; and to take it for granted is to let slip from one’s awareness what is properly most precious about it: that this love comes from freedom, as a gift. But when it is received as gift, it becomes also the spring or source of a return of love, in gratitude and in echo.
Surely this must also be true of us in our relationship to God! Our whole existence, our presence on this earth, our ability to draw in our next breath, is the gift of our Creator. Our knowledge that we remain loved by him, despite our sins and our failings, is the gift of our Savior. Christian identity, Christian consciousness, should be surrounded–above and below, from beginning to end–by gratitude for grace. The two words go together, even etymologically–grace and gratitude, gratitude for grace. And it is this awareness that we have been healed of our blindness, our lameness, our deafness, that we have been cleansed from our sins, been raised to life, that should be the originating impulse for lives lived not only in grateful response to God but also in the fashion in which we deal with others and especially with those in need. How can the grace-full not be grateful, not be gracious?
Advent should be a season for preparing to be grateful, for preparing for wonder. Many of the great Christmas carols will be filled with awe and wonder. During these last days before the great feast, we ought to spend some time in quiet anticipation and appreciation of the wonder of the grace whose coming we will soon celebrate. Our God is coming, with blessings in his hands. Let us pray that we may be ready to receive him with wondering and grateful hearts.
THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT – DECEMBER 17, 1995 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
We are now, in this year’s shortened season, only a week away from the transformation of Advent into Christmas. And as that moment nears when hope will be transfigured into joyful fulfilment, the biblical readings take on a tone of majesty that already anticipates the wondrous event we will soon be celebrating. It is perhaps like the fashion in which, in a great piece of music, the themes of a triumphal passage are hinted at, at first faintly and allusively, then more strongly and directly, until the final swelling chords break upon us with the joyful paradox of surprised inevitability.
The prophet’s language is now solemn: “Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong! Fear not! Here is your God! He comes to save you! Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf will be cleared. Then will the lame leap like stags, and the tongue of the dumb will sing.” The Gospel echoes and expands those themes: “Go back and tell John what you hear and see: the blind recovering their sight, cripples walking, lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised to life, the poor having the Good News preached to them!”
Multiple metaphors for the multiple blessings brought by Christ; multiple metaphors for our need of them. Surely one or another of them speaks to each of us: there is strength for those who feel weak; sight for those who cannot see; sounds for those who are unable to hear; lively limbs for those who cannot walk; speech and song for those who cannot speak; life for those who feel dead; Good News for those in hopeless poverty. Which of them apply to me? For which of these weaknesses does this Gospel offer me healing?
It is the substance–the thick solidity–of this promise that is so striking, particularly when contrasted with so much of what passes for preparation for and celebration of Christmas today. It is the contrast between the great and classic Christmas carols and the superficiality and sentimentality of most of the songs we hear endlessly in these days. The old hymns play variations on the classic Christian faith that in the child born in Bethlehem “here is our God, who comes to save us!” Us who need to be saved, saved from our blindness and deafness and dumbness and paralysis and poverty and death. Here is our God, come to save us!
Does this not need restatement? Do we not need such solemn and grand music–in these words of the Bible and in our hymns–to move us beyond a merely sentimental Christianity, beyond a merely ethical form of religion, to a re-recognition that the first word the Good News has to say to us in our poverty is that here–in Jesus of Bethlehem and Nazareth and Golgotha–is our God, come to save us? All the rest follows from this bold statement: all the feeling, all the joy, all the exigent demands–all of it flows from this first moment and first proclamation: not about who we are, not about what we are to do, but about who God is, about what God has done.
“Go back,” Jesus tells the emissaries, “Go back and tell John what you hear and see.” His words recall the words with which the First Epistle of John describes the act by which the Church has been born and is now born in every generation: “What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you so that you may have fellowship with us, and our fellowship is with God and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we have written this so that our joy may be complete.” Are we not here, you and I, because an earlier generation–our parents and grandparents, our teachers and priests–told us what they had seen and heard, because they wished to have their joy completed by bringing us into the marvelous communion with God and with one another that Jesus Christ makes possible? And must not this same joyful urgency drive us also: to tell what we have been given to see and hear and to see to it that a new generation has set before it also the opportunity to enter into that same wondering communion? Are we not now the ones in whom and through whom there must now echo again–two thousand years later–the grand and triumphant music that announces and celebrates that our God has come to save us?
Third Sunday of Advent – December 12, 2004 – Blessed Sacrament
Last Sunday we heard of the message of John the Baptist. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” He described this coming exercise of God’s royal power as “the coming wrath,” whose effect would be like that of an ax laid to a barren tree, which would require the kind of discrimination that occurs when a winnowing fan separates the wheat from the chaff. Threat overhangs the Baptist’s message.
Jesus of Nazareth was originally one of John’s disciples, and was baptized by John. When he began his own ministry, Jesus used the same message: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news!” But already in the use of the term “Gospel” (good news), there is an indication that he conceived the coming of the reign of God differently: it was a good news: grace, not threat, infuses Jesus’s message.
That difference appears to have prompted the scene we have heard recounted in today’s Gospel. John was expecting someone greater than he to be the agent of God’s wrath. It would seem to have been a genuine question on John’s part that led him to send two of his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or must we look for someone else?” The response of Jesus is not some bold self-referential claim. It is an appeal to what is widely known to be happening in his ministry: and with obvious reference to scriptural texts like the one we heard as our first reading, he points to the wonders being worked: the blind see, lame walk, lepers are cleansed, deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. What the prophet had spoken of as the wonders that would symbolize God’s restoration of Israel, were being accomplished. And Jesus asks John not to be scandalized–put off from faith–by the fact that the reign of God was coming as grace and restoration rather than as anger and punishment.
There is little doubt that Jesus had the reputation of working wonders. In modern times many critics have focused simply on the question of the possibility of miracles–a legitimate question in itself–and ignored the larger symbolic meaning that defines their purpose in the mind of Jesus and in that of the evangelists. That the disabled–the blind, the lame, lepers, the deaf–are healed, that the poor are brought the good news–symbolizes also the reversal of values that the reign of God embodies and requires. It is an option for them that is repeated many times in the words of Jesus–the first shall be last, and the last first; blessed are the poor, the mourners;–and in his deeds, when he sits down to eat with outcasts and sinners. And blessed anyone who does not find this impossible to accept.
That larger symbolic meaning can still be effective today. We might consider the various disabilities to which Jesus refers: blindness, deafness, lameness, disease–and see if one speaks to our own need more than another, and then make that the focus of our Advent expectations and prayers. For what healing do we wish Jesus to come? Over what aspect of our lives do we wish God to reign as he does not now? Do we have any such needs? Expectations? Desires? If not, it would be understandable that Advent would not be a very significant, which, of course, would be a great shame. For the season is the time for proclaiming what the prophet proclaimed: “Here is your God! He is coming to save you!” And what could be sadder for a Savior to come and for one not to know one needs him?
There was another blessing that Jesus pronounced elsewhere, addressing his disciples: “Blessed are your eyes that they see and your ears that they hear, for many a prophet and king longed to see what you see and never saw it, longed to hear what you hear and never heard it.” If our eyes are not seeing all that Christ gives us to see, nor our ears hearing all that he gives us to hear, then we have need of this Advent, and its call to repentance and its promise of healing.
Third Sunday in Advent – December 12, 2010 – St. John’s
Last week we heard a summary of the preaching of John the Baptist. He urged repentance because the kingdom of God was at hand, and his emphasis fell upon the judgment it would entail: he spoke of a coming wrath, of the ax at the root of the tree, of the time of winnowing the wheat from the chaff. If this was John’s message, it would be natural that he would wonder about his former disciple, Jesus of Nazareth, when he too began preaching the imminence of the kingdom but stressed the mercy that would define God’s coming reign. So John sends disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the one who is to come–the Messiah–or whether he, and all Israel, must Israel wait for another.
Jesus’s reply is that these disciples of John should return and tell them what they have seen and heard, and he then describes this in words largely drawn from the prophet Isaiah, especially from the passage we heard as our first reading. There, in language which the Jewish tradition would interpret as descriptions of the day when God would restore Israel’s fortunes: the barren desert would “bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song.” Israel may regain hope, find new strength in hand and foot, banish fear out of the assurance that her God was coming to save her. Then blind eyes will be opened, deaf ears cleared; silent tongues will speak, and the crippled will leap like deer. Sorrow and mourning will flee, and the redeemed will sing with joy and gladness.
The reply of Jesus’ takes up this glorious passage and even expands upon it: lepers are cleansed, the dead arise, and the poor hear the Gospel. His reply, then, is not an appeal to miracles as spectacular deeds, some kind of external proof of his authority. It is a claim that in Jesus, in his announcement of the coming of the Kingdom and in his deeds, the great messianic age of the restoration of Israel has begun. The Kingdom as it comes in him is sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, movement to the lame, life to the dead, and these deeds which Jesus was performing in the sight of all, were not only symbols but also embodiments of the great mercy of which Jesus was the herald and the agent. These were public acts, with significance for all of Israel: their Messiah had come! God was beginning his reign!
Generation after generation Christian believers for two thousand years have been telling what they have seen and heard. This is the very way in which John the Apostle describes what he is doing in his First Epistle: “What we have seen and heard we announce to you so that you may have fellowship with us, and our fellowship is with God and with his Son, Jesus Christ. And we are writing so that our joy may be fulfilled.” That is what the Church is: the community that tells what we have heard and seen of the mercies of God in Christ and that lives in the blessed communion of faith, hope and love those mercies have made possible. It is because people have told us what they have seen and heard that we are here today, in fellowship, communion, with all those who have believed before us, all the way back to those whose eyes and ears actually heard and saw God’s love embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.
Images abound in the two readings, and we might usefully allow ourselves to inhabit them, that is, to let them speak to us in all their concreteness, to reflect on them as symbols of our own spiritual state. One image may speak one’s condition or circumstance more clearly than another; one may apply more closely, more tellingly, at one moment of one’s life and another at another moment. We are all different persons here. For some of us the images may describe physical conditions which we would like to be healed; for others they may describe spiritual conditions no less in need of healing; for still others they may describe circumstances from which we would like to be freed. But surely there is an image that speaks to each of us, that speaks each of us: flowers for a parched land; strength to feeble hands or weak knees; hope for the frightened; sight for the blind, hearing for the deaf; cleansing for the leprous, leaping for the crippled; life for the dead; the good news of grace for the poor.
If you discover yourself in any one of these images, then pray from within it: Lord, water my arid desert; calm my fears; enable me to see, show me, whatever I have been blind to; make me hear what in your Word I have been deaf to; cure the limps that slow me down in my life’s journey. These may be so many different ways of praying, Lord, forgive me my sins. If so, we could use these or other images to examine ourselves for the sacrament of reconciliation as a preparation for Christmas. Admitting and confessing our sins could be a moment when the promise held out by our beautiful scriptural readings today is fulfilled in the forgiveness and reconciliation by which God wishes to reign over us.