11Dec 11 December, 3rd Sunday of Advent

How hard it is for those in authority to tolerate dissent… and people (or “whistle-blowers”) who dare to criticise the powers-that-be can expect to be harshly treated. At great risk to his life, John the Baptist castigated the authorities of his day. Only by doing so could he prepare his people for the coming of Christ, the Anointed Saviour.

1st Reading. Isaiah 35:1-6, 10

God’s life-giving presence among us is the great source of courage for believers

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus
it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

2nd Reading. Epistle of St. James 5:7-10

Our faith does not guarantee us an easy time in this life. We are urged to be patient

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is sanding at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11

John the Baptist is confirmed in his faith by he compassionate cures of Jesus

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus answered them, “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 good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John : “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

BIBLE

Linking the Readings

Kieran O’Mahony writes: Today’s rich readings are linked by a shared theme. We may put it like this:

• Isaiah holds out a vision of hope, in spite of voices to the contrary
• The psalm is a prayer for trust in God—God who is just and compassionate
• James invites us to patience and to strengthening of our hearts
• The Gospel identifies John as the forerunner of Jesus — important but not the coming one
• The Gospel identifies Jesus as the coming who one fulfils our longings explored in Isaiah.

It is all to do with the journey inward, the journey home.

Kieran has detailed exegetical notes on the readings on his “Tarsus” website, and a fine audio commentary on Soundcloud.


None Greater born of woman

Padraig McCarthy writes:
“No one ever born greater than John the Baptist –yet to be the very last and least in the kingdom of heaven is to be greater than John the Baptist”! Certainly Jesus is not suggesting that John does not have a place in the kingdom of heaven.

What I think is happening here is that Jesus is using a storytelling technique not uncommon in oral culture. I remember my mother saying about a brother of mine who had been expected home the night before: “He said he’s be back by 11. He wasn’t back by 11. He wasn’t back by 12. He wasn’t back by 1. He only got home at half past one!” It’s a technique of building up to a climax, and then capping it. Jesus builds up the importance of John until it seems he can go no further: “No one ever born greater than John the Baptist.” And then he goes further! The difference is what takes it further is not anything John himself can do, but what God does for each of us: calls us to the kingdom, which is beyond our own power.

There’s a similar technique in Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat … etc.” “When did we ever give you to eat…?” It seems quite impossible. But Jesus caps the build-up: “As long as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me!” So yes, the least in the kingdom is greater than John, as he was. But we can be sure Jesus brings in John to the kingdom too!

Padraig also commends this poem by Michael Joncas, based on today’s gospel reading:

O Adonai!

From deep within a prison cell
a prophet prayed and pondered
God’s high command, his destiny,
the pathways he had wandered,
until his thoughts to Jesus turned
and on his meaning hovered:
“Are you the One who is to come
or should we seek another?”

The answer Jesus gave to John
evokes his kingdom’s blessings:
“The blind find sight, the deaf gain sound,
and lepers, cleansed, caressing;
the lame leap up, the dead are raised,
the poor proclaimed as brothers —
am I the One who is to come
or should you seek another?”

John’s question haunts our questing hearts,
down centuries still spoken:
What diff’rence does this Jesus make
within a world so broken?
With greed and hate and violence
so easy to discover
is he the One who is to come
or should we seek another?

Though blinded minds refuse God’s light
it shines on through the darkness.
Though deafened hearts resist God’s word
it sounds in holy starkness.
And when we act in faithful hope
God’s future to uncover
we serve the One who is to come;
we do not seek another.

For ev’ry act of suff’ring love
reveals our God in Jesus,
who donned our death that we might live,
who rescues us and frees us.
So help us, help our unbelief,
you, unrelenting Lover:
you are the One who is to come.
How could we seek another?

(copyrighted by the Jan Michael Joncas Trust. Cited here with permission)


Joy in the Lord

“Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God”. Today is Rejoicing Sunday. Today the candle on the wreath is pink, not purple as on the other Sundays of Advent; to express the joy felt at the nearness of the Lord. Some people seem to be happy by nature; others mournful by nature. Here is the story of a priest who always preached mournful sermons. He was asked by his parish priest to preach about St. Joseph instead, as he was a cheerful man. The following Sunday the priest spoke about Joseph who happened to be a carpenter and as a result spent a lot of his time making coffins and here we go again with sad, sad tales.

Three things about happiness: first, happiness needs to be appreciated right now. We convince ourselves that life will be better when we get married, have a baby, then another. Then we are frustrated that the kids are not old enough and we will be more content when they are. After that we are frustrated that we have teenagers to deal with. We will certainly be happy when they are out of that stage. We tell ourselves that our life will be complete when our spouse gets his or her act together. The truth is there is no better time to be happy than right now.

Second, ‘If you are happy, let your face know.’ Maybe we could begin to be more joyful by glancing in the mirror and asking ourselves: does my face look like the face of someone who has heard the good news of the Gospel, namely that I am loved unconditionally by God?

Third, joy will come to us if we set about trying to create it for others. If I go about my life demanding that others carry me rather than seeking to carry them; feeding off others rather than feeding them; demanding that others meet my needs rather than trying to meet theirs, joy will never find me no matter how hard I party or try to crank up good cheer.


JB

No better man!

[Stan Mellett]

What about those puzzling words of Jesus – “No one ever born greater than John the Baptist –yet to be the very last and least in the kingdom of heaven is to be greater than John the Baptist”!  What can it mean? Not sure.  A line from the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson might give a hint. He wrote “there is a crack in everything God made” That includes you and me. We are all cracked. An uplifting thought to share with you this third Advent Sunday!   Gaudete Sunday after all!

That crack – that flaw – reveals itself in our incompleteness, our brokenness , our sin, in the dysfunction in ourselves, in our families and communities, in the church, the country and the world. We know deep down, if we stop to think, that all merely human projects ultimately turn to dust. No matter how medical science advances, we ourselves will return to dust.  More than a crack, there is a fundamental fault-line. All the cheery optimism in the world is ultimately an idle dream. From a mortality point of view it’s the pessimist who gets it right. We are all fighting a losing battle with time, and there is no escape.  Like the man in a flimsy raft battling with raging rapids, the currents all too strong for him;  might and main  he struggles to hold back from disaster but in the end goes over the top into the waterfall and into his death.  Like that don’t we all go over the waterfall some day and all our projects with us.

John the Baptist knew all too well that something is terribly wrong with the world and he came out to alert people then and us today that One was coming who could fix it. So be prepared, be ready. John was the last in a long line of holy men – the prophets who waited just for this to happen. For the Baptist that coming seemed very near.  So near that those who delay and make no preparation  are in for a roasting – they won’t know what hit them.  This Messiah would cleanse the Temple and deal with the enemies of God and of justice.

Now the Messiah has come. Or has He!  If Jesus was the longed-for Messiah – if Jesus was God among his people  – what he was saying and doing must have been a huge shock to John. So he sends his disciples to ask ARE YOU REALLY THE ONE!  Jesus didn’t answer directly. All he said was, “See what is happening,  and make up your mind.  The blind see, the deaf hear and the poor have the good news preached to them.” Jesus went on to lavish praise on John, as a good man – a great man, a prophet and more than a prophet. Still, the Baptist failed to see that there is a crack in everything God has made but God would fix it free of charge and for nothing! Our weakness and our sin would evoke compassion and forgiveness. o res mirabilis! What a wonder!

Our human uncertainty, inadequacy, failure and sin are not eliminated. We still fall short. But a new and radically different mindset is now needed, to accept the saving grace of Christ.  It’s not easy to come to that change. In the past a some preachers gave a misleading emphasis when they proclaimed SAVE YOUR SOUL; YOU ALONE CAN DO IT.  The Gospel truth is that I can never earn my place in the kingdom of God.  Yes, I can go to Mass, say my prayers, keep the commandments, do penance, even go to Lough Derg or Medjugorje; all these together and a million other similar exercises will not earn salvation or buy my way to heaven.  Rather, I may do them all and more as a humble response of gratitude. To a modern secular mind where God scarcely enters the equation, this kind of humility must sound pretty daft –  passive, demeaning, promoting a poor self-image.  Missing the God dimension they miss the gift of truth that sets them free.  They will never unravel the puzzle that Jesus poses when he says that “of all the children born of woman, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”


Saviour

Healing Wounds

[José Antonio Pagola]

What Jesus was doing left the Baptist confused. John was waiting for a Messiah who would wipe out sin from the world by imposing God’s rigorous justice, not a Messiah dedicated to healing wounds and alleviating suffering. From the prison of Machaerus he sends a message to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?” Our Lord answers him with the witness of his life as a healing prophet: “Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, those suffering from virulent skin-diseases are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” This is the true Messiah: the one who comes to alleviate suffering, heal life and open a horizon of hope to the poor.

It is clear that Jesus feels sent by a compassionate Father who wants a more dignified and happy world for everyone. That’s why he gives himself to healing wounds, curing illness and liberating life. And that’s why he asks everyone: “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” He doesn’t see himself as one sent by a rigorous Judge to judge sinners and condemn the world. That’s why he doesn’t frighten anyone with avenging gestures, but offers sinners and prostitutes his friendship and forgiveness. And that’s why he asks us all: “Don’t judge and you will not be judged.”

Jesus never heals in an arbitrary way or just to amaze. He heals moved by compassion, looking to restore life for sick people, for the dejected and broken. These are the first ones who should experience that God is a friend of a whole and healthy life. He never insists on the wondrous aspect of his healings, nor does he think about them as an easy recipe to abolish suffering in the world. He presented his healing activity as a sign to show his followers in what direction we should act in order to open up paths to that humanizing project of the Father that he called “Reign of God.”

Pope Francis affirms that “healing wounds” is an urgent task: “I see clearly that what the Church needs today is a capacity to heal wounds.” He speaks later on about “taking care of people, accompanying them as the Good Samaritan who washes, cleanses, and consuls.” He speaks also of “walking with people in the night, knowing how to dialogue, and even descending to their night and obscurity without getting lost.”

When he entrusts his mission to his disciples, Jesus doesn’t see them as university doctors, hierarchs, liturgists or theologians, but as healers. Their task will always be two-fold: heal the sick and announce that God’s Reign is near.


Did the Baptist have his doubts?

Why did the Baptist send from his prison cell to urgently ask Jesus: “Are you He that is to come?” Hadn’t John recognised our Lord as the Messiah several months previously, at the banks of the river Jordan, when he proclaimed Him publicly as the Lamb of God? Did John, faced with almost certain death under Herod, have doubts or second thoughts about Jesus?

Some say no, John only asked the question for the sake of his followers, who needed confirmation of their faith from Christ himself. But if John did have doubts, it was because of the peaceful way that Jesus behaved, not at all like the violent revolutionary the Jews expected as their Messiah. The answer to his question came when Jesus told him what God;s messenger would be like: healer of the sick, consoler of the suffering, preacher of freedom and truth to the poor. In this way, John’s faith in Jesus was made strong, giving him courage to protest against Herod, and accept a martyr’s death.


Saint Damasus, pope

Damasus (305-384) was bishop of Rome from 366 to 384. He had earlier served as deacon at the Basilica of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls, and became pope following the death of Pope Liberius. His lifetime overlapped with the rise of Emperor Constantine I and saw the legitimization of Christianity and later its adoption as the official religion of the Roman state in 380. Damasus strongly opposed Arianism and he presided over the Council of Rome (382), which fixed the canon of Scripture. He encouraged Saint Jerome in his Vulgate translation of the Bible, and did much to encourage the veneration of the Christian martyrs, creating access to their tombs in the Catacombs of Rome and marking them with inscriptions, some composed by himself.


2 Responses

  1. Padraig McCarthy

    “No one ever born greater than John the Baptist –yet to be the very last and least in the kingdom of heaven is to be greater than John the Baptist”!

    Impossible?
    Certainly Jesus is not suggesting that John does not have a place in the kingdom of heaven.
    What I think is happening here is that Jesus is using a storytelling technique not uncommon in oral culture. I remember my mother saying about a brother of mine who had been expected home the night before: “He said he’s be back by 11. He wasn’t back by 11. He wasn’t back by 12. He wasn’t back by 1. He only got home at half past one!” It’s a technique of building up to a climax, and then capping it.

    Jesus builds up the importance of John until it seems he can go no further: “No one ever born greater than John the Baptist.” And then he goes further! The difference is what takes it further is not anything John himself can do, but what God does for each of us: calls us to the kingdom, which is beyond our own power.

    There’s a similar technique in Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat … etc.” “When did we ever give you to eat…?” It seems quite impossible. But Jesus caps the build-up: “As long as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me!”

    So yes, the least in the kingdom is greater than John, as he was. But we can be sure Jesus brings in John to the kingdom too!

  2. Padraig McCarthy

    Just a note about the translation in the Jerusalem Bible. It gives “Good News” capitalised in “the Good News is proclaimed to the poor.”
    This usage gives it a specific Christian slant, suggesting what we call “gospel”, whereas the Greek has “poor (people) are evangelised”; but evangelised is not a specifically Christian word. Announcing good news has a much wider reference.
    Another small item which may be influenced by the Jerusalem Bible translation is “John in his prison had heard what Christ was doing.” The translation given above is “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing”, which gives it a different perspective.


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