The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song. The glory of Lebanon will be given to them, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing. Those whom the Lord has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; they will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.
1) The Lord God keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets captives free. (Refrain:)
2) The Lord gives sight to the blind; the Lord raises up those that were bowed down.
The Lord loves the just; the Lord protects strangers. (Refrain:)
3) The fatherless and the widow he sustains, but the way of the wicked he thwarts.
The Lord shall reign forever; your God, O Zion, through all generations. (Refrain:)
Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not complain, brothers and sisters, about one another, that you may not be judged. Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates. Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus said to them in reply, “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. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
(Copyright 1970, 1986, 1992, 1998, 2001 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc. Washington D.C. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
Copyright 1970, 1997, 1998 Contraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc. Washington, D.C. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
The English translation of some Psalm responses, some Alleluia and Gospel verses and the Lenten Gospel Acclamations, some Summaries, and the Titles and Conclusion of the Readings, from the Lectionary for Mass copyright 1968, 1981, 1997, International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc., Washington D.C. All rights reserved.
The poetic English translation of the sequences of the Roman Missal are taken from the Roman Missal approved by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States, copyright 1964 by the National Catholic Welfare Conference, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission of ICEL.)
I think if we could subtitle this passage of Matthew's gospel, we might call it "A Whole Lot of Questions". First of all, there's the question which John asks Jesus through his disciples: "Are you the one who is to come?" Why did John do this? Well, there are two possible explanations. First, because John really needed to know the answer to this question. He had labored long and hard and he wanted to know if Jesus was the one for whom he had labored. We will come back to this shortly. The second explanation is that John did it for his disciples. From prison, knowing that his days were numbered and that he had to decrease and that the one who was to come had to increase, he wanted his disciples to follow Jesus if, in fact, he was the Messiah. Notice that when the disciples pose John's question to Jesus, he tells them "Go back and report to John what you hear and see". Notice he didn't say "report what is happening" but "report what you have seen". In other words, the disciples may have followed Jesus for a while without saying anything to him and just watched him "do his thing". Or they may have posed their question soon after finding Jesus and he was inviting them to follow him for a while and see his works before reporting back to John.
Our Lord then goes on to ask two questions of the crowds about John, asking first of all "Did you go out to see a reed swaying in the wind?" This phrase could mean either of two things: 1) something that is very common, like any of the reeds down by the River Jordan; or 2) someone without a backbone whose opinion sways from one side to the other depending on how the wind is blowing at that time. Obviously, the crowds did not go out to the desert to see something very ordinary or someone who did not stand his ground. Well then, did they go to see someone very "unordinary", like one of the king's attendants who are luxuriously dressed and who would tell the king what he wanted to hear. John was certainly not someone who would do this, since what he told Herod eventually would cost him his life.
After Jesus poses these two questions, he comes to the crux of the matter. Jesus calls John a prophet and much more than just any prophet because he prepared the way for him. Our passage closes with Jesus' puzzling statement that although history has not known anyone greater than John the Baptist, the most unknown person who enters the Kingdom of God is greater than he was. How can this be? Jesus is referring to the fact that any Christian who enters the Kingdom of God has gotten there because of their knowledge of the love of God for them through the saving act of the cross. John, as the one who paved the way, did not have this luxury. If he had not done what he did, he would certainly have lived long enough to hear for himself Jesus' message of God's love. Thus, the humblest Christian in heaven is greater than any of the prophets that came before Christ.
So what does all of this have to do with us? Jesus calls John a prophet. What is a prophet? A prophet is someone who has God's wisdom in their mind, God's truth on their lips and God's courage in their heart (1). If we are to be modern day prophets, we first must learn God's wisdom. We do this by doing just what you are doing now: coming to Mass on a weekly, or even a daily, basis to listen to the Word of God and understand what it means in your life. Then we have to reflect what we have learned about the Word of God by what we say and, more importantly, by what we do.
At this special time of the year as we prepare to remember the coming of Christ in human form and as we heard in last week's gospel, we are called to repent for our sins, promise to reform our lives and sin no more, and be reconciled with one another. This is the hardest part of all. Consider the following story. The author writes:
- It was in a church in Munich that I saw him - a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to a defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. "When we confess our sins," I had said, "God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever." One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, the blue uniform and a visored cap with its swastika. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking past this man naked. The place was Ravensbruck and the man walking toward me had been a guard - one of the most cruel of them all.
Now he was standing in front of me, hand thrust out: "A fine message, Fraulein. How good it is to know that, as you say, our sins are at the bottom of the sea. You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk; I was a guard there. But since that time, I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things that I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein," again the hand came out, "will you forgive me?"
And I stood there, I whose sins had needed to be forgiven again and again - and could not forgive. It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me, it seemed like hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing that I had ever had to do. For I had to do it - I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. "If you do not forgive others their trespasses," Jesus has told us, "neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses."
I knew this not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of World War II, I had established a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and horrible as that.
And I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion - I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. "Jesus, help me," I prayed. "I can lift my hand. I can do that much. Just supply the feeling." And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing happened. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm and sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
"I forgive you, brother!" I cried. "With all my heart."
For a long moment, we grasped each other's hands - the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God's love so intensely as I did then. But even so, I realized that it was not my love. I had tried, and did not have the power. It was the power of the Holy Spirit being channeled through me. (2)
This story was written by Corrie Ten Boom, the author of The Hiding Place and a concentration camp survivor. I believe it illustrates the necessity of not only knowing about forgiveness in our minds but putting it into practice in our lives. Each of us are called in our own way to be prophets in our own time. We are called to learn God's wisdom with our minds, to speak God's truth with our lips and to hold God's courage in our hearts. It was only with God's strength that Corrie was able to forgive and it is only with the strength of the Spirit that we may be able to forgive others who have hurt us. And yet that is what we may be called to do. We may be called to make this Christmas different from all of the others. And if we answer that call, we will find a peace beyond understanding, a peace that comes from replacing the anger in our hearts with the love of God. May you too be a prophet in our own day, a prophet who brings peace and reconciliation into the lives of others.
1. From The Gospel of Matthew, copyright 1976 by William Barclay. St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh, Scotland. Used with permission.
2. Adapted from Love Your Enemy, by Corrie Ten Boom. From Guideposts, Carmel, NY 10512. Reprinted in Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul, copyright 1997 by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Patty Aubery and Nancy Mitchell, pp. 2-5. Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, Fl.
(Copyright 2016 by the Spirit through Deacon Sil Galvan with a little help from the friends noted above. Permission is freely granted for use, in whole or in part, in oral presentations. For permission to use in writing, please contact the human intermediary at email@example.com.)
Lord Jesus, you came to set us free from slavery to sin. Lord, have mercy.
Christ Jesus, you came to give sight to the blind and to raise up those who were bowed down. Christ, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you came to preach the good news to the poor. Lord, have mercy.
Celebrant: Christ became one like us to save us from sin and lead us to an everlasting banquet with him in heaven. With confidence in his mercy love, we bring our needs before him.
Deacon/Lector: Our response is "Lord, come and save us".
That the leaders of the Church will help us to prepare our hearts as a fitting dwelling place for the Lord, we pray to the Lord.
That the leaders of the nations of the world will treat the poor and the handicapped of their lands with mercy and compassion, we pray to the Lord.
That the sick, the lonely and the grieving may see in our caring concern the healing presence of Christ, we pray to the Lord.
That we will be generous in our support of all the retired religious who have selflessly served us all of their lives, we pray to the Lord.
That we may use this season of Advent as a time of healing and reconciliation with those from whom we are separated, we pray to the Lord.
That we will bring the light of God’s presence into the darkness in the lives of all those who are sick, disabled or terminally ill, we pray to the Lord.
For all of the intentions we hold in our hearts and which we now recall in silence. (Pause) For all of these intentions, we pray to the Lord.
Celebrant: Gracious Father, you chose John the Baptist to prepare the way for the coming of your Son. Grant us the grace of your Spirit to be prophets in our own day by learning your wisdom with our minds, speaking your truth with our lips and holding your courage in our hearts. And we ask this through Christ, our Lord.