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Third Sunday of Advent: The One Who Is To Come

Sunday, December 12, 2010
The familiar figure of John the Baptist, embodying our Advent hope, greets us again in this Sunday’s gospel. However, we find a man whose circumstances are much changed. The figure of hope seems to have become rather a pathetic figure, the great preacher and prophet languishes alone in a prison cell, awaiting his fate. To compound this unfortunate state of affairs it seems that the Baptist has also come to question the deeds of the one they call the Christ – the Anointed One – the one he was sent to prepare the way for. Indeed, he has come to question whether Jesus is such a Messianic figure at all.

Today’s Gospel is then, a question of identity. For John, disconnected from the community he loved, alone in a world filled with uncertainty, the identity of the Anointed One is paramount, and so he sends his disciples to ask; “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” It may seem a rather odd question, after all, if he has heard of the deeds, why then ask the question? The answer to this would appear to be that the identity of ‘the One who is to come’ was very different from the One that the Baptist expected. Indeed, the figure of Jesus had fulfilled none of John’s eschatological promises. John had preached that; “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” In an age when such a Messiah was expected to overturn the social and political status quo, John’s question does seem more reasonable. Should we look for another, or perhaps read differently, should we be looking for another of a different kind? Read in this manner we can see that although John’s expectations of Jesus’ role as judge were correct, he was unaware of the mission Jesus first had to fulfill on earth.

John is for us, a very human figure, his certainties have turned to questions, and he seems to waver between a man of prophecy and a man uncertain of the future. But where is the hope? Well, difficulties and questions do not equal despair: where would we all be if such were the case? On the contrary John provides the opportunity for Jesus to make clear the situation concerning his identity. In replying to John’s question Jesus marries his deeds with a patchwork of prophetic promises in Isaiah (29:18-19, 35:5-6, 61:1); "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 offence at me.” Jesus makes clear the fruits of his ministry and lastly proclaims blessed those who do not see his actions, unexpected though they may be, as a stumbling block to faith.

Whilst the question of identity is not cleared up with a simple Yes or No the answer couldn’t be clearer, and the message we can take from this should be heartening as we journey onward through Advent. We may all have times when we question, when our expectations in faith are not fulfilled, but we must draw upon what we see and hear, upon word and deed. We are surrounded by numerous examples of Christ’s love for us and nourished by the words of scripture. Indeed, our principal source of comfort and solace, even when we feel we are languishing alone and afraid, is Christ himself, given to us in the Eucharist. His identity is certain, but are we this Advent, able to recognise Him? “Are you the One who is to come.”

Graham Hunt OP


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