Monday, December 17, 2007

John the Baptist: "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect another?"

Yesterday—Gaudete Sunday—we heard a Gospel passage that has haunted and fascinated me for a long time.

John is in prison, awaiting death. He sends his disciples to Jesus to ask the question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect another?” (Matthew 11: 2-3)

What motivated John's question?

A priest I know—a great friend—believes that John was suffering "the dark night of the soul" and in a way it makes sense. Here he is, in a dank and ugly prison, looking forward to nothing but death...and he wonders.

Other commentators' I've read suggest that John's question, sent via his disciples, was a clever and loving way to convince these disciples that Jesus was truly "the One Who is to come."

But Pope Saint Gregory the Great offers, I believe, a glorious explanation.

This question is quickly answered if we examine the time and order in which events took place. On the banks of the Jordan, John affirmed that Jesus was the Redeemer of the world; even so, after his imprisonment, he asked whether he was really the one who was to come. It was not that he doubted Jesus to be the Redeemer of the world, but he wanted to know whether he who had come in person into the world would also descend in person to the prison-house of the dwelling-place of the dead. Because he whom John had already announced to the world in his role as forerunner, he would also precede into the underworld by his death...It is as though he wanted to say clearly:

"Just as you have deigned to be born for man's sake, grant us to know whether you will also deign to die for him in such a way that, forerunner as I am of your birth so shall I also be of your death, and so that I may proclaim your coming to the dwelling places of the dead just as I have proclaimed your coming into the world."

I mean, I ask you: isn't this fantastically great???

John knew that Jesus was the Messiah. He foretold it! Now, nearing death himself, he wanted to make sure that this Redeemer was the same one who would die and free those already dead and waiting. And Jesus assured him that yes, he was that same Person...and to go ahead and joyfully announce to all those waiting that the time of their imprisonment was nearing an end.

What a party there must have been when John joined the hopeful and spread the great news...with the explicit permission of the Master Himself!

(Commentary courtesy of good folks at "The Daily Gospel" who, upon request, emails free the readings of the day.)