Many have wondered about the exchange of messages between Jesus and John the Baptist, his cousin, in the Gospel reading. From the royal dungeons of King Herod Antipas, John had sent emissaries to ask Jesus: “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?”
Coming from John, that is a strange question. A short while back, prior to his incarceration, John had caught sight of Jesus on the banks of the River Jordan and had pointed him out to his own followers saying, “Behold the Lamb of God!” When John himself was yet unborn, he had kicked and leapt for joy when he heard the Virgin Mary greeting his expectant mother Elizabeth, because he was in the presence of Jesus and, through Jesus, of God.
Then when the time was opportune, John had even baptized Jesus in the muddy waters of the Jordan River, sealing Jesus’ own commitment to the earth as the muddy waters, the sacramental sign of its richness, but also of the earthen homes of the poor, poured down from his head, into his nostrils and mouth, then back to the river itself.
Having made of Jesus all of the above statements, and performed on his behalf all of the above services, and all their lives together having given him every mark of respect, why now, of all times, does John want to know, “Are you the One?”
That’s not the end of it. Jesus makes a reply that seems equally peculiar. He tells John’s emissaries to report back to their boss the miracles and signs which all fit the criteria laid out by the prophet Isaiah for the proper discernment of the Messiah: “The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear” and so on. Then he adds something not from Isaiah, but out of the blue and mysterious: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Why would Jesus say such a thing?
Moreover, what ought to sound out to us all kinds of alarms is the stuff Jesus omits in citing Isaiah. The prophet explicitly announced the four components of the Messiah’s mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has anointed me to (i) preach the good news to the poor; (ii) proclaim release to captives; (iii) foster the recovery of sight to the blind, (iv) set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Note that the second and fourth actions deal with a people in captivity. But in the message Jesus conveys to John, there is no mention of these two actions.
Why would our Lord exclude from his response to John the two provisions about liberating prisoners — just when John was at that very moment in prison?
What emerges then from the foregoing reflection is what John was really asking Jesus: “Since you really are the One, shouldn’t you be helping me to get out of this hell hole, shouldn’t you be setting not only other people, whom I have heard a lot about, but also me, your cousin, free. Isn’t liberty for captives one of the elements of the Messiah’s mandate? So what’s taking you so long? I need you to come, so please come, NOW!”
Imagine you’re in John’s place and you hear that message. You then think about all the things you had done to prepare the way for Jesus, all the trouble you had gone through. Wouldn’t you expect your cousin, the Messiah, to unleash his powers as God to set you free, and in that way to justify you before your foes? Who could blame John if his heart broke a little?
Following his initial disappointment, however, John must have gone back in his mind to his cousin’s message, coded especially for him: Pinsan, blessed are you who take no lasting offense at me. Your torment in prison for so unjust a set of accusations, give us both a foretaste of my own agonizing ascent to the Cross. Our own pain, although real and unconscionable, is of little importance in relation to the glory of the coming Kingdom. They are its conditions of possibility.
John, at that moment, would not have clearly understood any of this. But still he obeyed, trusting that God always knows best. John’s torment in prison was only the foretaste of Jesus’ own approaching agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he told God, as the Blessed Mother years before had also said: I do not understand this, how I am to be the Mother of my Lord, in Mary’s case; and for Jesus, why I must submit to so cruel and unjust a death — yet not my will, but Yours, be done!
Sometimes when we want or need something, and God doesn’t give it to us in the way we expect, we have said, not without resentment, “Should I look for another?” Like us, John the Baptist had his expectations. Even prophets, however, do not always get what they ask of the Lord. One might be the greatest prophet, the Lord’s cousin, but even they have to, in the ringing battlecry of Alcoholics Anonymous, “let go and let God.”
This Advent, let us work to develop the trust to hearken to his will, even without understanding. What is it that we are being called to let go, to strip away from ourselves, to surrender, that we might be radically able to “let go and let God,” whom the Prophet Joel describes as in-breaking like a “storm.”
Let me end with a few lines from “Tillicho Lake,” by the poet David Whyte:
In this high place
it is as simple as this,
leave everything you know behind.
Step toward the cold surface,
say the old prayer of rough love
and open both arms.
Those who come with empty hands
will stare into the lake astonished,
(for) there in the cold light
you will find reflected
the true shape of your own face.
What did you come out to the wilderness to see? What did you have to strip away from yourself in order to see? Are you now able to welcome perplexity, complexity, and that joy which is the true measure and shape of yourself?
Are you now able to welcome Jesus Christ?
(Fr. David is professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Manila University and University of Santo Tomas.)