December 10, 2010

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Like John the Baptist, let’s be witnesses of faith and hope

The third Sunday of Advent anticipates the joy of Christ’s coming birthday. I can hardly believe that it is fast approaching—this Sunday.

The Gospel of the day features John the Baptist, who is an important figure as we approach Christmas 2010. John, with his question “Are you the one who is to come?” (Mt 11:3), is a figure with whom we can identify. John has always been a favorite patron of mine.

One time on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we visited a church which, according to tradition, stands at the place where on the night before Jesus was crucified, St. Peter denied—three times before the cock crowed—that he even knew Jesus.

In the crypt under that church, there is a deep, dry stone cistern—I would say it is about 10 feet deep and, at most, it is about three feet in diameter. It is said that, down in that cistern, is where Jesus was imprisoned the night that he was condemned to be crucified. It was painful to imagine spending a lonely night in that cistern surrounded by nothing but a dark stone wall.

When I was reflecting on the Gospel about John the Baptist being in prison, I thought of that cistern. How confining it would be, how a tendency to panic because of claustrophobia would not be surprising, and how at the very least one’s vision of reality would be challenged and darkened.

And so it should be no surprise that, from prison, John the Baptist would want reassurance from Jesus for whom he was confined in the first place. No surprise that he would want to be assured that the one whom he had prophesied, the one whose way he had prepared, was indeed out there and was about the work of salvation.

And so we hear the reassuring words of Jesus: “Go back and tell John what you hear and see: the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor, and happy are the people who do not lose faith in me” (Mt 11:4-6).

This was indeed reassuring to John in his confinement. His faith was affirmed because, as a faithful prophet familiar with the Word of God, he would have recognized those words of Jesus as deriving from the writings of prophets like Isaiah.

In the confinement of prison, all John could do was rely on his faith in Jesus—and that was a lot! And he could be at peace and full of hope. The story of John the Baptist’s confinement in prison illustrates the power of faith in Jesus, who is our hope. John is a witness of faith and hope.

We may not be confined in a claustrophobic cistern, but is it not true that we do experience times when life seems dark? Are there not times when our outlook on life becomes narrow?

On occasion, we hear folks say—maybe we think it, too—if there is a God, why do bad things happen to good people?

How could Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 happen to so many innocent people? How can people terrorize a world in the name of religion?

These kinds of confining thoughts can come even closer to home if, for example, we lose a loved one in sudden tragedy or to the long anguish of battling a cancer or if a lovely young child is taken from our midst. And so we, too, like John the Baptist, may sometimes pray with the words, “Are you the one who is to come?” (Mt 11:3)

And that’s OK because in prayer we, too, find the answer of Jesus—there is also healing and mercy in this life, and there is a community of faith which carries on the healing mission and ministry of Jesus.

And in prayer, especially in these days of Advent, we recall that life in this world is not the end of the story.

In our Advent prayer, we notice the repeated theme of praying with patience for the coming of the Kingdom, where every tear will be wiped away. No dark confinement will last forever. Evil does not and will not triumph.

Christ our hope, prophesied by John the Baptist, became incarnate as one of us at the first Christmas. We anticipate that joyful news on the third Sunday of Advent as we proclaim our joy, even if there is some darkness in our lives.

Like John, we continue in faith, and we can rejoice in hope. We are so blessed to have a Savior who brings light in times of darkness, and healing and life in times of illness.

He is our hope. Christmas is a feast of hope. †

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