An Advent Doubt: Is He the One?
User’s Guide to Sunday, Dec. 11
Sunday, Dec. 11, is the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A. Mass Readings: Isaiah 35:1-6, 10; Psalm 146:6-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11.
Today’s Gospel is an odd one for Advent, especially for the Third Sunday of Advent, when we are more than halfway to Christmas. This Sunday is called Gaudete — or “Rejoice” — Sunday, and many priests wear rose vestments because the liturgy tells us again and again to rejoice.
So why do we hear the Gospel tell the story of how John, languishing in prison, sent messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?”
Instead of a Gospel confidently expecting the coming of Christ, this one doubts that Christ has come. Instead of the voice of John crying out in the wilderness, these are the scribblings of John, questioning in a dungeon. Instead of proclaiming his faith, here is John raising doubt.
Many commentators suggest that John didn’t doubt at all, but asked the question for the benefit of the messengers. By sending his disciples to Jesus with this question, they say, he might simply be helping move them from being disciples of his to being disciples of Jesus.
But maybe he asked the question for himself.
“If he did,” Romano Guardini wrote in his book The Lord, “it would by no means conflict with his calling. Often, naively, we imagine the illumination of a prophet as a fixed thing, as though he had only to behold, once, in order to know without wavering forever after.”
But from the lives of prophets such as Elias, who, near despair, begged for death, we know that this is not the case. ”In reality, even a prophet’s life is shaken by all storms and saddled with all weaknesses,” writes Guardini.
If John did ask for his own sake, he became more than the precursor, the great prophet announcing the Messiah: He became the model of the seeker and the sufferer.
And by giving us this reading now, the Church might be saying something very important: It is okay to doubt, if you bring your doubts to Jesus.
Imagine what John must have thought. He has painted a grand vision of the one who is to follow him, and he has prepared the way— but now, he is trapped in a cell, the prisoner of a petty tyrant. He announced God’s kingdom and got imprisoned by the kingdom of Herod. He said Jesus would separate the wheat from the chaff, and now he is the rejected one.
We often find ourselves in the same place as John the Baptist.
The faith might not seem to be what we expected. As we read the first reading — “The desert and the parched land … will rejoice and bloom”; and God “comes with vindication … to save you” — we may wonder, “When will this happen?”
We are promised peace through faith, but we often don’t feel at peace. We can feel like we are imprisoned by any number of things: employment or unemployment, bills or debt, our state in life or our uncertain status.
We might want to look at the tabernacle on this Third Sunday of Advent and say with John, “Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?”
Nevertheless, the Church today says, “Rejoice.” Why? Jesus Christ has come, and everything he said has come true, literally for some and spiritually for each of us — “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.”
St. Paul reminds us to be patient as we wait for the full ripening of the grace that we are already experiencing. But in the meanwhile, Jesus says: Keep your chin up, rejoice in faith and hope, “and blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at
Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.
He is the author of What Pope Francis Really Said.