Saturday, December 14, 2013

Did even John the Baptist have doubts? (Advent.3)

My friend Daphne writes a very successful blog about writing. I read it every week, partly to improve my writing and partly to keep up with her news.

Last week I was a bit shook up by the opening line of her latest article: “I have a new companion.” That was a shock, since she’s happily married, and no-one with three teenagers is crazy enough to get a dog.

But the next line explained things: The name of her new companion is doubt.

Daphne started thinking about doubt recently because the challenges of writing a book have made doubt her new best friend. She says that doubt walked shamelessly through her front door and sat down in the chair beside her desk.

Tackling the problem head on, she decided to look on doubt as a companion, and observe what it was up to. After a week, she began to feel about doubt the same way she feels about fear. “It’s an emotion. It’s neither good nor bad.”

Daphne advised her fellow writers to deal with doubt the way they deal with fear: not by ignoring it, but by paying attention to it.

I’m taking my friend’s advice today and paying attention to doubt—not my own, but John the Baptist’s. The things scholars say about today’s Gospel make me uncomfortable, because some suggest John was having a crisis of faith. And even if that’s true, who wants to talk about the Baptist’s doubts in the middle of Advent?

First let’s figure out why John might have been having second thoughts about the man he had hailed publicly as the Lamb of God (Jn. 1:29) and whom he had baptized in the River Jordan.

It’s not hard to guess: Herod has locked John in a dungeon at the moment when his hopes were about to be fulfilled. Just when he expects the Messiah to reveal himself in power, John is out of action. Who wouldn’t start to wonder—to rethink his earlier convictions?

And so John asks a question that he had already answered. Are you the one? Or was I wrong?

“Most people prefer a simple answer to a simple question. It is fair to ask, then, why Jesus responds to John’s question with a news bulletin…” Why not a simple yes?

“Presumably, it is because Jesus wants to give John what he needs to steady his wavering faith.” [Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, The Gospel of Matthew (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture) 151]

Jesus gives John more than an answer: He reminds him of the signs and wonders he is working so that his identity as the Messiah will be made clear. But even more, he reminds him of ancient prophecies and shows how they are being fulfilled—“strengthening the Baptist’s faith by grounding it in the word of God.” [Gospel of Matthew, 152]

During this Advent season, the Lord wants to hear our questions too. Maybe we don’t ask “are you the one who is to come?” but we sure do wonder sometimes if he’s coming at all.

Even though I have no doubt that Jesus is the saviour, I find myself wondering if he’s my saviour.

Some prayers just don’t get answered. We feel more confusion than clarity. And some of us are even living in prison cells of our own making.

What does Jesus say to those of us who identify with John’s doubts?

It seems to me he sends us the very same message he sent to John. What have you heard? What have you seen? Face down your doubts with evidence.

Don’t rely absolutely on miracles. They’re not intended to replace faith. Who needs faith if every illness is cured by every prayer?

In the Gospels, miracles are not proofs but signs: “they point to faith, but they never compel faith… In asking John to consider the evidence, Jesus was asking his cousin what he asks of us: a free decision based on the evidence of his words and deeds, yet going beyond what they ‘prove’ in the strict sense.” [John Jay Hughes, Proclaiming the Good News: Homilies for the ‘A’ Cycle, 24]

And don’t rely only on the evidence from the time of Jesus. What do you see around you? Do the blind not receive their sight, when people are able to see through the shadows and recognize the light of truth?

Have you not seen a person crippled by anger or isolation begin to walk straight again when touched by the healing power of God?

Are lepers not made whole when Christians reach out to prisoners, to misfits, to those society wishes to forget? 

And do the poor not hear good news when parishioners spend countless hours boxing hundreds of Christmas hampers to distribute near and far? Do the poor not have the Gospel brought to them when our parish raises some $25,000 in a matter of days for the victims of the typhoon in the Philippines?

Do we not, in our own times, see signs that can ease our doubts and strengthen our faith? Perhaps the Church should sponsor something like what the schools do when a student “shadows” someone at their work. If you could spend a week with me, or any parish priest, you would be given the same encouragement that Jesus offered to John the Baptist.

Like the disciples told John the Baptist, I can tell you--looking back only a week or two--that the blind do see, the deaf hear, and lepers are cleansed; the understanding, generosity, forgiveness, love, encouragement, sacrifice and boundless charity that I see in my own parish at this time of year is good evidence that Jesus is the one who came and who will come again.

John the Baptist had it right the first time: “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (Jn. 1:34)

No comments:

Post a Comment