The Third Sunday of Advent
Dear brothers and sisters,
These past several days certain words of the prophet Isaiah have frequently escaped my lips, and the lips of many others: “Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak” (Isaiah 35:3). As winter sets in and I begin to move more slowly – particularly amid the recent weather fluctuations – these words have been almost a constant prayer brought before the Divine Majesty. Isaiah prophesies, “…then will the lame leap like a stag,” and I ask, “When, Lord? How long” (Isaiah 35:6)?
From the confines of his cell, Saint John the Baptist asks of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another” (Matthew 11:3)?
There are others, too, who find themselves in trying situations. Some are oppressed by unjust circumstances or people (cf. Psalm 146:6); some go to bed hungry at night (cf. Psalm 146:7); some have been greatly humbled (cf. Psalm 146:8) and others are lonely (cf. Psalm 146:9); and there are also those who grieve the deaths of those they love (cf. Psalm 146:9). Each of these individuals are here present among us; and each of these individuals are present in each of us, to one degree or another.
There are times in our lives when it seems we can bear no more. There are times in our lives when it seems that all is lost. In these times do we not all cry out, “When, Lord? How long?” Do we not make the words of the Baptist our own, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” What are we to make of this question?
It was John whom the Lord set apart to prepare the way of the Messiah. Was John’s faith, then, weakened? It was John who pointed to Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Why did he ask if Jesus was the one?
The Gospel gives no indication as to his thoughts behind the question. Perhaps he expected the Messiah to overthrow the Romans. Perhaps he recognized a weakening of faith in his followers and asked this question of Jesus to strengthen their faith. We cannot say; but we do have the response given by Jesus.
His response is somewhat mysterious: “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” (Matthew 11:4-5). We might well ask why he does not simply say “yes” or “no”. His answer is a summons to deeper faith. His answer is the fulfillment of the ancient prophesy:
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 (Isaiah 35:4-6).
Those who actively seek the Messiah and search the Sacred Scriptures know what his answer means: “Yes, I am he who is to come; I am he comes in the name of the Lord (cf. Psalm 118:26). The time of fulfillment is at hand: the LORD has ransomed his people and they “will enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; they will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee’ (Isaiah 35:10).”
It is because he knew “the LORD keeps faith forever” that the Apostle James says to us, “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord” (Psalm 146:6; James 5:7). We know that the Lord is coming and for this reason Mother Church encourages us to “rejoice in the Lord always” for “the Lord is near” (Entrance Antiphon).
The Lord is near indeed to those who are oppressed in body and spirit; he comes to “set captives free” and when he comes he “shall reign forever” (Psalm 146:7, 10). For this reason we must “make [our] hearts firm” and look to the example of the prophets who endured “hardship and patience” in their service of the one who is coming (James 5:10).
We, too, brothers and sisters, are in his service and must seek to prepare has way into our hearts and into the hearts of others; we, too, seek to “experience the joy of salvation” and to help others experience it, too (Opening Prayer).
Saint John the Baptist desired this joy and would stop at nothing to obtain it, going so far as to give his life for the sanctity of marriage. It was John who “was poor in spirit, and for that reason inflexible in virtue. There are many who stray from the path of virtue through love or through fear. He loved only God and feared nothing except to offend God.” This is the lesson he teaches us.
Saint James, too, shed his blood for the faith of the Jesus Christ. Throughout his letter, he teaches us “not to presume to plan our lives autonomously and with self interest, but to make room for the inscrutable will of God, who knows what is truly good for us.”
The prophet Isaiah also met his death as a witness to the Holy One of Israel.
The lives of these illustrious men – and the lives of countless others – teach us quite plainly that we are not to be “a reed swayed by the wind” (Matthew 11:7). Such a one - because his faith is weak - is blown about when difficulties and struggles come and falls away from the faith; such a one takes offense at Jesus (cf. Matthew 11:6). We are not to be like these reeds.
We are, rather, to ask the Lord Jesus in faith, “Are you the one who is to come?” When he answers all we need do is look around and recognize that he is indeed the one. When we see the signs of his presence the feeble hands and the weak knees of our faith are strengthened and made firm that we, too, may wait in joyful hope - patiently - until he comes.
Let each of us, then, endure the sufferings of this present age, that our desire for the Lord’s coming might deepen, so that when he comes he will find us watching with hearts filled with eager expectation. Amen.