Be patient, says the letter of James, until the coming of the Lord. For many of us, patience can be a challenge at any time. For most of us, it is especially so during this annual holiday season. It is one of the many paradoxes of our peculiar modern way of life that we manage to be busiest precisely at the very time of year when everything in nature is telling us it is time to slow down. Winter is nature’s way of slowing us down. Note, for example, James’s reference to the farmer, who waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it, until it receives the early and the late rains. Back before modern technology made us think of ourselves as so superior to and separate from the natural order of things, everything naturally slowed down in winter. All sorts of activities came to a halt. Outdoor work - and even wars - stopped for the season. Of course, modern technology has made all these activities possible even in winter and, in dangerously changing our climate, may actually be in the process of largely eliminating winter - and lots more as well.
Popular folkloric customs like our Advent Wreath remind us that when winter was really winter, people paused. The Advent Wreath originated in the common practice of removing the wheels from carts at the beginning of winter. The peculiar custom developed of decorating a wheel with branches and candles. If the light of the candles came to signify the bright light of Christ, coming to penetrate the dark night of our present world, the wheel itself signifies our readiness to slow down enough to be able to see the light despite the winter dark.
It may or may not have been winter, but John the Baptist was certainly in the dark. Confined in Herod’s prison, he too was looking for light and so sent his disciples to Jesus to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?
John’s problem (besides being in prison) was whether or not his life’s mission had really made sense. John had confidently proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom and had forcefully challenged people to repentance. Just how successful he was is hard to gauge, but he obviously had made an impression.
He had also acquired enemies – enemies powerful enough to put an end to his preaching and put him in prison. He had, however, also made disciples, whom he now sent to evaluate Jesus.
Jesus’ (somewhat indirect) answer was meant to reassure John, by recalling the biblical prophecies in which they both believed. Look, Jesus seemed to be saying, the things that are supposed to happen when the Messiah comes really are happening. What more evidence do you need? “Go, and tell John what you hear and see.” In other words, the reality of the kingdom is happening – happening here, happening now!
The Gospel gives us no record of John’s reaction to Jesus’ response. He leaves the scene with his question. But it’s a question that the world keeps asking: Are you, Jesus, the one who is to come, or should we be looking elsewhere? There are, after all, a lot of other places one could look, a lot of other places where people do in fact look. We may rush through the world at an increasingly fast pace. But it is a world full of confusion and chaos, of broken hearts and broken lives, haunted, as yet another year comes to an end, by so many painful memories, lost opportunities, unfulfilled longings, and ruptured relationships. On top of that, we now live in a deeply divided country of bitterly angry people, polarized almost evenly along ethnic, racial, educational, generational, and geographical lines, while anxiety rather than hope seems to be the dominant feeling for so much of the contemporary world.
So John’s question cannot just go away – unless, of course, one is prepared to give up and abandon hope entirely.
That John was not willing to do, and people generally have not been willing to do. That is why Christmas is so important, now maybe more than ever. In the dark winter night, full of fear, worry, and anxiety, in this long night of the present, Christmas comes in answer to John’s question – and our question.
Today’s rose vestments tell us to be joyful. Rejoice, Saint Paul tells us, the Lord is near. In the words of the familiar Sussex Carol, Then why should men on earth be so sad, Since our Redeemer made us glad? But it seems that joy can be just as challenging as patience!
Christmas, of course, commemorates an historical event – the birth of Jesus, some 2000+ years ago. Our celebration of Christmas, however, is only in part about remembering an event in the past. It is also – and primarily – about the future for which the coming of Christ into our world makes it possible for us to hope, even now in the present. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, 10 years ago in his encyclical On Christian Hope: “If we cannot hope for more than is attainable at any given time, or more than is promised by political or economic authorities, our lives will soon be without hope. It is important to know that I can always continue to hope, even if in my own life, or the historical period in which I am living, there seems to be nothing left to hope for.”
It was as the historical spokesman for our hope – the perennial hope of men and women of every time and place – that John in prison posed his question, a powerful question, a question the world keeps on asking. To us, as to John, Jesus challenges us to pay patient attention, and so to hear and see the signs – the powerful signs – of God’s presence and action in our lives and in our world, enabling us - and inviting us - to live in hope. And because it is we (who continue Christ’s life and mission in the world as his Church) who are now the voice of Christ for the world to hear and the face of Christ for the world to see, it is we who are being asked John’s question and we who must answer it by the witness of our own hope – hope for ourselves and hope for the whole world.
Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 11, 2016.