Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?
(St. Matthew xi. 2)
We have said that Advent season is all about our preparing for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ at Christmas time. In history, Jesus Christ, the Desire of God, was made flesh some two-thousand years ago in ancient Palestine. At that time, the historical Jesus had come to summon His followers to God’s Kingdom through the one oblation of Himself once offered. (Consecration Prayer, BCP 1954) As the Holy Spirit began to touch and move people through Him, He initiated the return of man to God the Father. He desires to do the same today. History has been in the process of being swallowed up into eternity ever since God the Father called Abraham out from Ur of the Chaldees. Having overcome all potential obstacles to communion with our Heavenly Father in His Son, the Father continues to draw back to Himself those who are ready and willing. The Ascended Christ continues to make history as He does the Father’s bidding and comes to be made flesh in us through the indwelling of His Spirit.
We have a future, and our destiny is to be with God the Father. In today’s Gospel we are charged to prepare for that future in a very specific way by John the Baptist. John’s mission is to make ready and prepare the way for the coming of Jesus Christ, and so his life is a paradigm and pattern for our Advent preparation. His life is summarized in these words: He must increase, and I must decrease. (St. John iii. 30) John the Precursor, John the Preparer, is on a mission to discover that spiritual character that makes room for the coming of Jesus Christ. Yet, he knows that Christ cannot come to us until we have been emptied of our sins. Our sin takes up too much space! Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (St. Matthew iii. 2) He calls us to make room in our hearts for Jesus Christ. John lives in the wilderness where he discovers himself. He sees himself clearly in a place far removed from relations to other people and things. He sees himself, mostly, as far removed from God. Here he discovers his sins and his need to repent of them. The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice even with joy and singing. (Isaiah 35, 1,2) John Baptist’s wilderness is unlike nature. Nothing grows in a lifeless desert. But in John Baptist’s wilderness God will give the increase. John Baptist commands the coming of Christ. As Romano Guardini writes,
The herald proclaims his message with authority, and what he says is framed in terms of a command. There is always a sense of urgency in what he announces. Though it may conflict with what is in men’s thoughts and interrupts them in their business, he cares less to conciliate them than secure their attention. (The Lord...)
The hard truth that John proclaims is that God alone can save us from the wilderness that He demands.
John commands us to share his repentance over his self-willed alienation from God. Repentance is the hard dry truth that knows of no growth or harvest in self-will. Repentance generates an abyss, a void, a barren wilderness, into which alone the coming Lord can work His healing redemption. John knows that the wilderness that his repentance has created is an empty cistern that can hold no water. With John, we must experience this emptiness that comes in and through ourselves and our best efforts. We must be unselfed in a purely potential state so that Christ might begin to redeem the raw materials of our being.
And yet how can we do this? It sounds so much easier than it is. Repentance is difficult. What we are speaking about is not being sorry to others for sins committed against others. What we are talking about is being convicted by the Holy Spirit of our sin against God. Oswald Chambers tells us that, when the Holy Spirit rouses a man’s conscience and brings him into the presence of God, it is not his relationship with other men that bothers him, but his relationship with God –‘against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned and done this evil in Thy sight.’(Ps. li, 4; My Utmost, p.342) We cannot become the space that is prepared to welcome the meaning and purpose of Christ’s coming until our carefully contrived worlds of respectable goodness come crashing down. (Idem) What we have made and what we protect jealously must be destroyed. Even our good works, our law-abiding and moral habits must perish. Being satisfied with ourselves in relation to all else must die. Natural goodness and pious habits cannot save us. Self-conscious satisfaction is a barrier to the coming of Christ in our souls and bodies. With John the Baptist, we must say, [There is one] who coming after me is preferred before me, the latchet of whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose…Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world…(John i. 27, 29) He must increase and I must decrease. It is not ‘I’. I am not He. I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord. (St. John i. 23) With John the Baptist we must embrace our own undoing before we can comprehend Christ’s coming to us. With John Baptist we remain in sin if we cease to understand the value of repentance. With him we must examine ourselves and see if we have forgotten how to be truly repentant. (Ibid)
This means that we must be found faithful to Christ in reflecting and repenting in good times and bad. We find the extreme of bad times in today’s Gospel. John Baptist is in prison awaiting execution, having been tortured severely. John is near death and his role as Herald and Forerunner is coming to an end. He awaits the blessing of the Messiah’s coming. He sends his disciples to ask Jesus, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? (St. Matthew 11. 3) He must decrease and Christ must increase. They are sent back with no promise of John’s liberation from prison or of Herod’s demise. John must be swallowed up in Christ alone.
Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Ibid, 4,5)
In other words, give to John what he longs to hear. Give him the promise of healing, sanctification, and salvation. Tell him that what he has prepared for is coming to pass. John may not be able to live to see how the great mystery of Godliness unfolds. But he can leave this world being blessed by Christ’s coming with hope. Jesus knows that John is sufficiently emptied of himself to receive the good tidings of great joy that shall be to all people (St. Luke ii. 10) that are already pouring forth from the His heavenly heart into the suffering of the Baptist.
Christ goes on to say: And, blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. (Idem) Monsignor Knox has it as, whosoever shall not be scandalized by me. The idea is that, as He says, blessed is the man who shall not be suddenly out of his stride, just when everything seemed to be going all right, by running up against an unforeseen snag or obstacle…or by falling into a trap. In other words, blessed is the man who is faithful come what may, despite all manner of unforeseen drawbacks. (Knox: The Epistles and Gospels, p. 16) Blessed is John Baptist into whose self-denial and looming death Christ can come with the spiritual hope that will save all men through all times and conditions.
Christ goes on to show that His coming is most acutely welcomed by those, like John Baptist, who are suffering and dying to this world.
What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. (Ibid, 7-10)
What should we expect to find in John the Baptist? Unwavering faith. Utter unworldliness. Suffering. Death. To repent and be forgiven as God passes by or winks at men’s sins is Old Testament Religion. The new religion will demand death like that of the Baptist. It means that every inch of my being must decrease and die that Christ may come alive in me. Can Jesus who is the one that should come really intend that I should suffer in this way? Can a loving God demand such agony of soul as a condition for His coming? Jesus’ answer is a gentle, merciful but firm. Yes. Blessed is he who is not offended in Me. (Idem) Christ says that those who follow Him must die. They may, like John Baptist, die at the hands of wicked men. In whatever condition we find ourselves, we must die spiritually to anything that opposes Christ’s coming redemption.
Christ tells us that John’s way is correct. John turns our hearts of disobedience to the wisdom of the just [One]. John invites us into the wilderness of repentance as death and bids us welcome Christ’s coming. As Romano Guardini writes:
Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life, the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being all there, receptive, alert, ready. There is nothing inert or oppressive about it. Attentiveness –that is the clue to the stillness in question. The stillness before Christ. (The Stillness and Silence of the Mass)
We have a future if we embrace John Baptist’s stillness. Only in stillness can we welcome Christ’s coming. He must increase, and I must decrease. (idem) As Fulton Sheen remarks, Herein lies the secret of mental and spiritual stability. It is only by creating an emptiness that Heaven has a place to fill. The Baptist is a steward who has been found faithful (1 Cor. iv. 2) in stillness and emptiness. Stillness and emptiness enable Christ to unself us, bring us into death, and bless us. Only then, with John, will we know that God’s coming Word made flesh will suffer more than any for us so that we may be called the children of God, and hope for a future of eternal union with His Father and ours, through the Holy Ghost.
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