This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 11:2-11:
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why 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: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
For most of our childhoods, Christmas was a time of great anticipation. The possibilities seemed endless — what would Santa bring us? How would we spend our Christmas break? Nothing seemed impossible, and the only dark cloud on the horizon was knowing we’d have to get dressed up at some point for Christmas dinner. When Christmas Eve rolled around, we knew we’d spend most of the night waking up and hoping that it was morning already, then rolling back into a fitful sleep when we realized it was still too dark outside.
Having a family brought back some of that anticipation. We’d wrap gifts after our son went to bed, anticipating his reaction when he woke up and saw gifts under the tree. We’d look forward to the family get-together with a little more enthusiasm than when we were children, because back then all we wanted to do was play with all of the really cool stuff we’d just opened. As we matured, the anticipation focused much more on the love and belonging of family, brought together in happiness.
Today’s readings talk about preparation, anticipation, patience, and joy in a much more important context, of course. Isaiah’s prophecies are all about anticipation of salvation, and preparation for the Suffering Servant who will deliver it. In our reading today from Isaiah 35, the prophet tells Israel the signs that will accompany His arrival — the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will “leap like a stag,” and the mute will sing. Isaiah’s prophecies all involved healing of some kind, of the lands and of human afflictions as well, physical and spiritual. The feeble, weak, and frightened will take heart in the Lord when his Savior comes to accomplish all of this.
To the people of Israel and Judea at that time, their circumstances hardly prompted anticipation of joy. The kingdom had divided two centuries earlier, and the northern kingdom was about to be conquered by the Assyrians and destroyed entirely. The Judean kingdom was threatened by the Babylonians, and the kings of Judah were trying to stave off defeat with alliances rather than trusting in the Lord. Isaiah offered hope beyond their circumstances, promising a joy that eluded the Israelites and Judeans but set a fire in their hearts of anticipation of the Messiah to come.
When John the Baptist sends his disciples to Jesus, he is already out in the desert offering baptisms as a means to repent of sin and for preparation of the arrival of the Messiah. Jesus’ answer to his question cites Isaiah as a means to ensure John comprehends the moment, as well as describing many of the episodes in the Gospel. Jesus performed these works of mercy to make sure people knew who He was, and that the Lord had sent Him to save them from their sin.
John clearly understands this, but few others do. Jesus patiently tries to explain to the crowd that they are missing the forest for the trees, and that they had been anticipating the wrong kind of Messiah all along. “What did you go out to the desert to see?” Jesus asks, and offers two alternates to the truth — that John is a prophet, which Jesus confirms and adds, “and more than a prophet.”
First, Jesus asks whether they went out to see “a reed swayed in the wind.” This describes what many of us do when anticipating what is to come, and perhaps especially when it comes to salvation. Did they go out to have someone tell them what they want to hear? Someone who simply repeats the current fashion or philosophy, “swayed in the wind” of popular opinion?
Next, Jesus challenges them about their concept of the Messiah as a temporal king. “Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.” The Judeans are anticipating a powerful warlord who will militarily defeat their enemies and drive them off of the lands of Israel, not a healer who will bring peace to all humanity. They have heard Isaiah’s prophecies but have taken their own interpretation of them to bolster their own desires, and not the will of the Lord.
These are critical errors that will cause many to reject Jesus, and fulfill the rest of the prophecies of Isaiah in doing so. But those are errors which we commit to this day, too. We anticipate the salvation of Christ more on the basis of what we think it should be rather than what Jesus tells us in the Gospels. We want judgment on our terms, and we anticipate score-settling based on our own judgment rather than the Lord’s. We miss the sense of family that salvation will restore to all men and women as children of God, and instead focus more on what we get out of it.
This common human failing occurs because we are trapped within our own linear sense of time and can only get glimpses of the eternal plan of salvation. We lack the patience to allow Christ to work God’s will to its full unfolding. All we see in front of us is our own needs, our own desires, and when the Lord seems to work against those, we lose patience and our anticipation of Christ’s salvation. James wrote about this in our second reading today, counseling the nascent Christian church to have patience and to stand together in unity. “Do not complain, brothers and sisters,” James warns, “that you may not be judged.”
Advent is a time of preparation, of anticipation, but also of patience. We already know that the Lord has prevailed, and salvation is assured for those who “make your hearts firm,” as James advises. While we celebrate the cycle of the coming of Christ in Bethlehem, we are reminded of the need of patience as well as preparation and anticipation. We are not called to wake up occasionally and impatiently await the dawn; we are called to remain awake and prepare ourselves for it, submitting to the will of the Lord rather than indulge our own willfulness.
When that dawn comes, we will all stumble toward it, knowing that we have not fully comprehended what gifts it brings, but also knowing the complete joy it will bring. While we prepare and anticipate that day, we can share those gifts and that joy with everyone else now. That is the Good News of the Gospel, and the beauty of Christmas.
The front page image is a detail from “The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist” by Bacchiacca, circa 1520. On display at Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.