By Debie Thomas
In a beautiful reflection on Advent published in the Washington Post this week, columnist Michael Gerson describes the choice that is before us during this holy season: “On the evidence of our senses, despair is perfectly rational. Entropy is built into nature. Decay is knit into our flesh. By all appearances, the universe is cold, empty and indifferent…This leaves every human being with a choice between despair and longing. Both are reasonable responses to a great mystery.”
The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudete” or “Rejoice” Sunday. In many churches, the penitential purple of the season is put aside in favor of a happier rose, and several of the week’s lectionary readings encourage hopefulness and joy. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom,” promises Isaiah. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,” sings Mary, the expectant mother of Jesus.
And yet this Sunday’s Gospel reading places us in a context quite different from Isaiah’s blooming wilderness and Mary’s magnificent vision of God’s kingdom. Maybe Jesus has an ironic sense of humor, or maybe the lectionary is shrewder than I give it credit for. Whatever the case, the Gospel of Matthew has us squatting in a prison cell on this Gaudete Sunday, offering uneasy company to a broken and despairing John the Baptist.
Joy is not evident behind the bars that hold the fiery Baptizer. Through no fault of his own, John is in chains and in crisis, wondering if he has staked his life on the wrong promise and the wrong person. The Messiah, as far as John can tell, has changed nothing. He was supposed to make the world new. He was supposed to bring justice, fairness, and order to human institutions. He was supposed to finish the costly work John started so boldly in the wilderness — to wield the axe, bring the fire, and renew the world.
But nothing has worked out as this disillusioned prisoner thought it would, and all he has left as he paces his cell is an anguished question for the would-be Messiah: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? In other words: “Lord, I’ve staked my entire life on you. Has it all been for nothing?”
If you know John’s backstory, his crisis of belief might surprise you. After all, this is John the Baptist we’re talking about. John, whose very conception occasioned an angelic visit. John, who leapt in his mother’s womb at the first glimpse of a pregnant Mary.
John was a boy who grew up with prophetic expectations ringing in his ears. From an early age, he felt the exhilaration and the burden of his calling as “the forerunner.” He knew he was supposed to preach repentance to everyone who crossed his path.
So he took to the wilderness, dressed himself in camel skins, and lived on grasshoppers and wild honey. In due time, he “prepared the way of the Lord,” baptized the Messiah with his own hands, and proclaimed the arrival of God’s kingdom to anyone who would listen. All this — before he was even thirty years old.
Can you imagine what the people who encountered his ministry at its apex must have said? “What a promising young man! How powerfully God’s hand is on him! What do you think he’ll accomplish next?”
Well, our Gospel reading this morning tells us exactly what John the Baptist “accomplished” next. When a faithless king rejected his wife to marry his brother’s, John once again honored his vocation of truth-telling, and condemned the marriage. The next thing he knew, he was rotting in a prison cell, wondering if everything he’d dedicated his life to was a sham.
If we Christians have a uni-directional way of telling our conversion stories — “I journeyed from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from despair to joy” — then John’s story should stop us in our tracks, because it is an anti-conversion story. By our stock logic, John’s journey is a backwards one. From certitude to doubt. From boldness to hesitation. From knowing to unknowing. From heavenly light to jail cell darkness.
What should we do with this disturbing trajectory? Should we call it a case of spiritual failure? Faithlessness? Backsliding? Jesus doesn’t. Jesus responds to his cousin’s pained question with composure, gentleness, and calm, knowing — as Gerson reminds us in the Post — that despair is an understandable response to life’s worst cruelties.
“Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus tells the disciples who bring him John’s question. Tell him that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
In other words, Jesus says: go back to John and tell him your stories. Tell him my stories. Tell him what your eyes have seen and your ears have heard. Tell him what only the stories — quiet as they are, scattered as they are, questionable as they are — will reveal.
Why? Because who Jesus is is not a pronouncement. Not a sermon, a slogan, or a billboard. Who Jesus is is far more elusive, mysterious, and impossible-to-pin-down than we have yet imagined. The reality of who Jesus is emerges in the lives of the plain, poor, ordinary people all around us. We glimpse his reality in shadows. We hear it in whispers. It comes to us by stealth, with subtlety, over long, quiet stretches of time.
I wonder what version of Jesus would emerge for me if I took this Gospel invitation to heart. I wonder where and how God would appear if I were more attentive to the stories that usually lie beneath my notice. I wonder how much divine richness I’ve squandered by mistaking certainty for faith.
How did John respond to Jesus’s answer? Did it satisfy him? Did it quell his doubts? Did it renew his joy?
We don’t know. All we know is that the liberation Jesus spoke of did not come to John in this earthly life. Yes, the blind saw, and the deaf heard, and the poor received good news. But those joyful stories came to John second-hand; they never became his own. His own earthly story ended in death — a meaningless, grisly death that made a mockery of the divine justice he preached about all his life.
If John’s doubt, pain, and untimely death don’t rattle you, if his story doesn’t shake your faith even a little bit, then I’d ask you to pay attention to why. It has always seemed odd to me that Christians who worship the Crucified One have a hard time staying put in the presence of extreme doubt, despair, and suffering. Somehow, we feel a need to blunt the edges. To soften the blows. To make God okay.
But this story is not “okay,” and many of our own stories aren’t okay either. The prison bars that hold us don’t always give way. Our doubts don’t always resolve themselves. Justice doesn’t always arrive in time. Questions don’t always receive the answers we hunger for.
Jesus calls us to see and hear all the stories of the kingdom — and that includes John’s story, too. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” Jesus says. Offense runs away. Offense quits. Offense erects a wall and hides behind it because reality is harsher and more complicated than we expected it would be. Yes, some stories are terrible, period. They break hearts and end badly. People flail and people die, and this, too, is what the life of faith looks like. Don’t take offense. Don’t flee.
Many of the pious stories I’ve inherited as a Christian are not jagged enough for the world I actually live in. They’re too lukewarm, too clean, too polite. They move to closure and triumph so quickly that they turn pain into an abstraction. They dull my capacity to practice genuine compassion, empathy, and longsuffering. Where is the Christian story that can handle horror? Where is the Christian story that will equip us to sit gently and patiently in the darkness with those who mourn, fear, rage, or doubt?
John was one of those people — we all know them — who did everything right, and suffered, anyway. He died disillusioned and afraid, unsure of his Messiah. Worse, he suffered a death that accomplished nothing. No one repented. Nothing changed. There was no “happily ever after.” As Teresa of Avila purportedly told God, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”
What would it be like for us to live authentically in the face of the world’s unbearable sorrows? What if “the point” of John’s story is to indict every form of transactional Christianity that promises us safety, prosperity, and blessing in exchange for our good behavior? What if our faith isn’t meant to dull our discomfort or blunt our sorrows — however much it offends our 21st century American sensibilities to admit this?
Maybe we don’t need to slap purpose and meaning on all human experience in order to prove our piety. Maybe God is more present in the dark abysses of the world’s pain that he is in the sanitized narratives we concoct about him.
Maybe we are invited to honor doubt, despair, and silence as reasonable reactions to a broken world. To create sacred space for grief, mourn freely, and rage against injustice. To let joy be joy, sorrow be sorrow, horror be horror. To feel deeply, because God does.
Here’s an ironic fact: John the Baptist is remembered by the Church as the patron saint of spiritual joy. Why?
Perhaps because he understood something flinty about the life of faith. After all, joy in a prison cell isn’t about sentimentality. Or about the pious suppression of our most painful crises and questions.
Perhaps he understood that joy is what happens when we dare to believe that our Messiah disillusions us for nothing less than our salvation, stripping away every expectation we cling to, so that we can know God for who God truly is. Maybe he realized that God’s work is bigger than the difficult cirumstances of his own life, calling him to a selfless joy for the liberation of others. Maybe John’s joy was otherworldly in the most literal sense, because he understood that our stories extend beyond death, and find completion only in the presence of God himself.
“Are you the one who is coming?” John asked in despair and yearning.
“You decide,” Jesus answered in love.
Silence reigned until John joined the community of saints. But can we hear his answer now? It is filled with confidence, and it is a resounding YES. Jesus is the one who has come, and is coming, and will never stop coming. We have not hoped in vain. Christ will forever turn our despair into joy. (2) Wikipedia.org;
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
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