Magnanimity and Pride

Third Sunday of Advent. Is 35:1-6a, 10; Ps 146:6-10; Jas 5:7-10; Mt 11:2-11

The Gospel today directly parallels the First Reading, a prophecy of Isaiah. This prophecy, at least five hundred years old at the time of Jesus, foretold the signs that would accompany God's coming to save us, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared ... the lame leap like a stag ... the tongue of the mute will sing.” So when the messengers from John the Baptist arrive to ask Jesus the question, “Are you the one who is to come?” Jesus says 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.” In other words, Jesus tells them to look at the evidence and draw the correct conclusion: the prophecy has been fulfilled; the Christ has come to save us. But why does Jesus add the words, “blessed is the one who takes no offense at me,” and why did John send his disciples to Jesus? It is these themes I want to address in today's brief homily. 

To understand what is happening it is worth recalling some of the background. John the Baptist and Jesus are cousins. Both were conceived in a miraculous way foretold by an angel. In the case of John, his mother Elizabeth conceived him at an age when she was thought to be too old and barren; in the case of Jesus, his mother Mary conceived him as a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit. Both John and Jesus are on a mission of salvation and both John and Jesus will be killed as a consequence of this mission: John will be beheaded in Herod's prison;  Jesus will be crucified by Pontius Pilate. At the height of their popular success, both of them have disciples and both of them attract large crowds of people to listen to them. In human terms, these are parallel lives. Yet they also radically different. While John is a man, indeed the greatest of those born of women and more than a prophet, Jesus Christ is both man and God, God become man to save us. We worship Jesus, we do not worship John, and this is why Jesus also says that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John.   

Now John the Baptist acknowledged this difference. Indeed, his whole life was one long witness to Jesus. Even before he was born, he leaped in Elizabeth's womb at the presence of Mary and her newly conceived child. While baptizing the people in the Jordan, John refused to call himself the Christ, but instead always directed his disciples to Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” One of the many fruits of John's preaching can be seen in the fact that one of his own disciples, Andrew, became one of Jesus' first disciples, and Andrew in turn led his brother Peter to Jesus. John, who described himself only as the “friend of the bridegroom”, that is, the friend of Christ, always deferred to Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

With all this background, why then did John send messengers to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Did John suddenly have doubts? For John languishing in prison and facing imminent death, perhaps he did suddenly doubt his life's work. However, many of the Church Fathers give a different interpretation to his motives. It is not that John had doubts, but rather that he was still fulfilling his mission, still witnessing to the Christ. So when he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one who is to come, he was not doing this for his own sake, he was doing this for their sake. He sent them to Jesus so that they could hear and see for themselves that the prophecies had been fulfilled: the Christ had come to save us. And when Jesus gives his warning, “blessed is the one who takes no offense at me,” he is not warning John but warning John's disciples who, might, perhaps, be jealous of Jesus' success.

John is, I think, one of the greatest examples we have of magnanimity, of greatness achieved through the service and love of God. But he also stands as a kind of warning. John could so easily have turned from magnanimity to pride, from the worship of God to the worship of himself. He had so many gifts from God that he could easily have set himself up as a kind of false Christ, or anti-Christ. John avoided the trap that many have fallen into throughout history, men who have set up false religions, founded on pride and power, that have attempted to mimic and distort the Catholic faith. Let us ask God to give us the humility that is the foundation of genuine greatness, that we may love and serve him in this life and be happy with him forever in the next.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 16th December 2007

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