Yesterday was the final day of the weekend Women’s Advent Retreat I gave at the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh. There were fifty-seven women in attendance, and it was a wonderful, grace-filled weekend. I am filled with gratitude.
The final time I spoke to the group was when I delivered a reflection on the readings at our Mass on Sunday. Yesterday’s Gospel was Matthew’s account of the imprisoned John the Baptist sending his disciples to Jesus to ask “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another.” The following summarizes a part of what I shared.
When I listen to that Gospel, I ask myself: What was it like for John between the time he was arrested and the point at which he is beheaded?
John wasn’t sitting in some swanky minimum security prison being served three meals a day and getting exercise. He was likely in a dark and dank cell, perhaps chained, being served unappetizing and perhaps even rotten food. No toilet, no sink, guards perhaps jeering at him during periods when they were bored.
As he sat, day after day and week after week (we are not told how long John was imprisoned), he must have had questions and doubts. And so he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” suggesting at least some uncertainty.
I can picture John in his prison cell, worn and weary. Perhaps he knows that he will soon come to his death. I can imagine him asking himself: “Did my life and witness have meaning?….Am I in jail about to die for a good reason?” I can imagine him wondering if his mission had been worth dying for…if it had all been for naught… if he had been abandoned by God.
But when his disciples question Jesus, seeking some assurance for John, Jesus doesn’t provide quick and easy solace. How easy it would have been to console a dying man, for Jesus to instruct John’s disciples, “Tell John it’s all cool. He backed the right horse. Everything is copacetic.”
Instead, Jesus tells them “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.”
In other words, draw your own conclusions. Don’t take it on my say-so. Don’t believe in me because of who I say I am. Rather, judge for yourself based on what you know of me and my work.
Speaking of this passage, Pope Benedict wrote
The task set before the Baptist as he lay in prison was to become blessed by this unquestioning acceptance of God’s obscure will; to reach the point of asking no further for external, visible, unequivocal clarity, but instead of discovering God precisely in the darkness of this world and of his own life, and thus becoming profoundly blessed. John even in his prison cell had to respond once again and anew to his own call for metanoia or a change of mentality, in order that he might recognize God in the night in which all things earthly exist.
Most of us won’t be imprisoned for our preaching of the Gospel. But, we do each suffer dark moments, fearful moments, and, thus, face the same challenge “of discovering God precisely in the darkness of this world and of [our] own [lives].”
And when we do that, we know (in the words of the first reading from Isaiah) that however bad things may look, “The desert and the parched land will exult” and we will see “the splendor of our God.” The eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf cleared, the lame will leap and the tongue of the mute will sing. As the second reading says “The Coming of the Lord is at hand.”