The Jesuit poet, G. M. Hopkins wrote a poem about patience as a hard thing to pray for. Waiting, longing, wondering what’s taking so long, are experiences we’d rather avoid. Things for which we do not have to wait, things and persons who are automatically present, tend to become, well, just there - the usual.
There is a comfort in the usual, but there is something in the human soul which urges the new, different or surprising. As we pray with an Advent spirit, we want both the expected and the unexpected. This is a wonderful way to pray and live, because there is something of God in both. We pray with our experiences of being surprised, with the different and unusual of each day as a preparation for our celebration of this Eucharist and of God’s becoming one of us. The different can be an annoyance, but it does keep us alert and alive. We might pray also with our resistance or skepticism about the unexpected.
The historical setting for our First Reading is the Exile. The Jewish nation is distant from Jerusalem, in Babylon. In the midst of their alienation from land and temple, a prophetic voice sings out verses of hope. For us, this poem is a picture of reversals. For the people in exile this would be a dream, an “Is it possible?” They were far from home in a captivity brought about by their failures to respond to God. They hear of a day, “coming soon!’ which is from the very same God Whom they had rejected.
The promise is made to the people that things are about to change. The natural will change; the desert will become fertile and all the flora will sing out of the goodness and glory of God.
Then we hear words spoken to the frightened of heart. God is coming so stay awake, do not give in to despair. These are words of encouragement to a repentant nation long in exile.
The final section of the poem returns to the pictures of physical changes. The blind and mute and deaf will be made whole. The entire people will see and hear and sing with joy as they reenter Jerusalem while sorrow and mourning flee from the city and the hearts of those whom the Lord has recalled.
The Gospel pictures John, whom we heard last week baptizing and announcing something, someone new is coming, but now in prison. He sends his followers to Jesus with one good question. It seems that John is not doubting Jesus, but, in his personal exile in prison, needing a sign of hope. The question is about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah.
There is a two-fold ending to this Gospel reading. Jesus relies on John’s familiarity with the messianic texts, especially the verses we have heard in the First Reading. The blind, the mute, the leper are healed. The dead are raised and the poor have the “good news” preached to them. The proof is in the putting of the hopeful verses into reality. John will be comforted by the report his disciples give him. As they are departing, Jesus speaks to crowds about this person, John. They had gone out to see him and listen to his calling. They might have had certain expectations and even suspicions. John was found to be strong, dedicated and living what he believed. He was not a trembling reed, but a true prophet of whom Scripture announced. Of all the prophets and indeed of all born the natural way, John is the greatest. Then Jesus takes the opportunity to confound, yet invite His listeners.
There is a new level of existence. There is a new way of being born. There is a different way of judging greatness. The least person living this new way, is greater than John the Baptist whom Jesus has just stated to be the greatest born the old and natural way. Jesus is continuing His call to all Jewish listeners to be born of this new, unexpected, surprising, “supernatural” way. Jesus has affirmed John, affirmed Himself to be the Messiah, and affirmed the establishment of His kingdom or way of living.
It is “Rejoice Sunday” and there is some cause for that spirit. Here’s the problem though. We hear it said that we should be careful about what we pray for. Advent can be dangerous! We are invited to pray with the coming of Jesus as a baby. The real problem with Jesus is that He grew up and spoke His truth, lived His truth. By His doing that, we are invited to listen and live those same truths! We are all in a captivity to the familiar, to our ways, to our expectations. Jesus asks to be born again in us who are to live with joy at our being released from our fears, blindness, deafness and leprosy. WE are praying with dangerous and disturbing concepts, be careful what you pray for. John was affirmed in his belief that Jesus was the Messiah. The crowds, we, hear that Jesus is after changing, rearranging us, our values, our ways of seeing, listening, living. Surprises, such as Jesus was and is, do take time to get accustomed too. More than Jesus is about to be born!
“Say to the anxious- be strong and fear not, our God will come to save us.” Is 35, 4
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