by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“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 the good news brought to them.” Matthew 11, 2-11

The basic meaning of the noun “want” is lack. To say that I want something is to acknowledge that I am lacking in something or that something is missing in my life. We now use “want” as a verb in the sense of desiring or wishing for something. We are fast approaching that time of the year when those close to us will ask: “What do you want for Christmas?” We might do well, then, as we move through Advent, to ask ourselves what is missing in our lives that stops us from living as we would like to live?

Today’s gospel reading suggests that John the Baptist was ill-at-ease because he felt there was something missing in his life. And that was confidence in his own judgement. He had pointed to Jesus as the Messiah, and now, as he lay languishing in prison and afraid that his life would be taken from him, he was doubting his judgement. He was asking himself if Jesus really was the Messiah for whom he and the Jewish nation had been waiting for so long. So he sends two of his disciples back to Jesus for some indication of reassurance :”Are you the One we’ve been expecting, or are we still waiting?” (Matthew 11,3).

I suggest it is well worth our while taking some time to reflect on John and what seems to be missing in his life. We might even be able to see in John something of ourselves, for who among us has not had doubts about Jesus at some time in our lives?

In the confines of his prison there was very little to lift the Baptist’s spirits or to give him hope. Like the people around him, both inside and outside of prison, he lived in the hope that the Messiah would bring freedom and that the coming of the kingdom of God with usher in something that would lift the oppression imposed by occupying forces and religious and civil leaders who were interested only in their own comfort.

We might well find ourselves asking questions that echo what John asked? In what ways has the coming of Jesus as one with us made our world and our lives different for the good? Do we sometimes ask ourselves where Jesus is hiding when we are bombarded day in and day out with news of violence, war, terrorism, and corruption in government? Do we sometimes look for indications that a benevolent and loving God really has our interests and well-being at heart? Do we sometimes doubt the existence of a God who really does love and care for us? Isn’t it understandable that we can slip into depression and doubt when we are saturated with bad news?

Yet, in responding to John, Jesus tells the two disciples to go back with some good news: “Tell him what you have seen for yourselves. Give him the good news about the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame walking and the dead being raised to life.” And in our contemporary world, so fraught with civil strife, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and exploitation of the weak, there are hundreds of thousands of selfless volunteers reflecting to needy people something of the care and compassion of God. But good news doesn’t attract T.V. sponsorship or sell newspapers. Still, there is plenty of evidence that points to the fact that the Spirit of God is alive and well in our world. And let’s not forget that Jesus is as alive and active in our world as we make him. We, too, can let ourselves become weighed down with depression and doubt or we can shift our focus to making sure that we invest ourselves and our energy in being witnesses to the presence and reign of God, to making Jesus well and truly alive through the way in which we reach out to people in need of encouragement, affirmation and down-to-earth kindness and care.

This third Sunday of Advent used be known as Gaudete Sunday, taking its name from the Latin word meaning to rejoice. The irony is that the gospel reading starts off with a picture of the Baptist with seemingly nothing to rejoice over. The world around him is so bleak that he is questioning his own judgement and even doubting whether Jesus is really the Messiah. Jesus sends him back a message pointing out that there is much over which to rejoice. Goodness really does abound as decent people set about bringing care, kindness, compassion and hope to others who are in want of these things. And there are still plenty of decent, caring, loving and generous people in our world today, doing their best to reflect the goodness of God and the compassion of Jesus to everyone they encounter, especially the forgotten and the alienated.

But there is still more for us to learn from today’s gospel reading. John had a vision for a new world order and recognised that Jesus was the one who would usher it in. In pointing to Jesus, John even admitted that it was time for him to retire into the background. When that “retirement” was forced on him in the form of imprisonment, John started to waver with doubt. Jesus had been inspired by John’s vision and came to understand that it was now his role to build on it. Furthering the larger vision sometimes means leaving behind those who have launched that vision. But Jesus did not let John slip into the background without giving him the highest possible accolade:

When John’s disciples left to report, Jesus started talking to the crowd about John. “What did you expect when you went out to see him in the wild? A weekend camper? Hardly. What then? A sheik in silk pyjamas? Not in the wilderness, not by a long shot. What then? A prophet? That’s right, a prophet! Probably the best prophet you’ll ever hear. He is the prophet that Malachi announced when he wrote, ‘I’m sending my prophet ahead of you, to make the road smooth for you.’ (Matthew 11, 7-10)

But Jesus then had to make the difficult decision of being true to himself and building on John’s vision, aware that the answer he had sent back to John may not have fully satisfied him. And isn’t that the same for us? We, too, have visions for furthering the kingdom of God, and part of the challenge for us is to recognise that those with whom we live and work also have real potential for contributing to the building of the kingdom of God in our part of the world. At the same time, we have to know when those who preceded us have had their day and when we, too, have had our day. The vision is more important than all of us. Moreover, there is nothing to be gained from competing with one another, from running one another down, from being jealous of one another. It requires a big mind and an even bigger heart to identify and cultivate the goodness and potential in others. It’s for us to fan into flame the gifts of those with whom we live and work. And we will never achieve that by remaining silent or by insisting that they conform with our way of seeing or doing things. But there is much to be gained from talking with each other about the vision we share and how best to collaborate towards making it a reality.