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.”
Had someone told us in our childhoods that Advent was a season of patience, we would have thought it crazy. Nothing about Christmas in those days related at all to patience. We made wish lists of presents, counted down the class hours to Christmas vacation, and stocked up on Christmas holiday sun lotion. (Hey, I grew up in Southern California.) By the time Christmas Eve came around, we were wound up so tightly with impatience that we could barely sleep, and probably twanged in a decent gust of wind.
Even now, many (many many) years later, patience hardly seems to be an overriding value. Neither does anticipation, for that matter. The frenetic approach to Christmas as kids seems to have either morphed into the same practices as adults, or we were merely modeling what the grown-up world was doing back then. This goes beyond the normal laments about commercialization to simply about pace. We crowd more and more events into this short period of time and keep ourselves so busy that we even forego anticipation for exhaustion.
These days, we’re all twanging in the wind.
It’s true that Advent is a season of anticipation and preparation, but in our readings today we learn that it is also a season of patience. It is not enough to anticipate the Messiah, but also to trust that He will come in His own fashion. It is not enough to project our own wills as to what He will mean, but to prepare ourselves to receive Him unconditionally and to conform ourselves to His will.
Our first reading from Isaiah expresses the prophet’s poetic vision of life in the Lord’s paradise. “The eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing,” Isaiah prophesies, in a promise of divine justices for the injustices of life in a fallen world. There will be no hardship in the Lord, nor any conflict with nature (such as “desert and parched land”) because nature serves the Lord, and we will live in the Lord.
Isaiah’s vision comes with a particular exhortation, however. “Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not!” This is a warning about faithlessness and a lack of trust in the power of salvation. It is from this that our impatience, anxiety, and eventually despair can arise. We are insecure about what is to come, so rather than prepare in anticipation of the Messiah by forming ourselves to His will, we prepare in anticipation of a lack of the Messiah and try to form the world around us to our will. We seek our vision of justice for ourselves and risk injustice to others by it. We make ourselves into our own gods and then despair at the ruin we can make of our lives as a result.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus relies on Isaiah’s prophecy to reassure John the Baptist that his own prophecy has been fulfilled. How does Jesus do this? He recounts the justice that He has already begun to deliver as a sign of what is to come in salvation. Jesus then turns to John’s followers about the distorted expectations among the Israelites of what the Messiah will bring. They have been expecting and preparing for someone who will be “swayed” to conform to their wills for salvation, not to conform to the Lord. They have been captivated by wealth and power in this world, rather than the authority and justice of the next. They are not patiently anticipating the Messiah, but instead impatiently dictating the terms for who and what they will recognize as a Messiah. And that would prove to be a fatal mistake.
In his epistle, James reminds us that anticipation has to be linked with patience. Everything has its season, James writes, exhorting the early church to “make your hearts firm”:
Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not complain, brothers and sisters, about one another, that you may not be judged. Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates. Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
This is a poetic analogy as well. The farmer forms the earth of the field for the seed, not because it will yield a crop tomorrow but because it will unfold as intended in the fullness of time. The farmer certainly anticipates a crop and prepares for it to arrive, but he does not dictate its coming or going, nor the nature of it when it comes. James analogizes this to the prophets who came before John the Baptist, men who tilled the field for salvation even though they knew nothing but hardship for their efforts.
As for us, we have to form the soil of our hearts to plant our seeds of faith in anticipation of salvation. The Messiah will bring us to live in the Lord in the fullness of time if we form ourselves to His will, in anticipation surely but also with faith and hope of salvation. There is no need to be impatient if we truly trust and believe in the Lord. We only need to prepare, and then to recognize Him when He comes.
The front-page image is a detail from “The Sermon of St. John the Baptist” by Bernardo Strozzi, c. 1644, on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“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.