Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent: "What did you go out to see?"

Father Richard Cipolla

“Are you he who is to come, or do we wait for another?”  (Matthew 11:3)

This Gospel is full of questions.  The primary question by Saint John the Baptist, and then the questions asked by Jesus to the crowd.  This Gospel is one of the reasons why I love the season of Advent.  There is never enough time in Advent.  There seems to always be enough time in Lent, but Advent is something that seems to pass through our fingers. And yet…and yet, it is in the encounter with the Gospels read during the Sundays of Advent that we are forced to stop and look and hear and ask questions of ourselves.

The first question is asked by John the Baptist.  We must remember who he is: He whose mother felt him leap in her womb in the presence of Jesus in Mary’s womb: He who lived in the desert so that he might be closer to God.  He who, when he asked the question in today’s Gospel in prison, is in  prison not for some crime against the State or against humanity.  John is in prison because he dared to tell King Herod that he sinned in marrying his brother’s wife.  That is a topic for another sermon, but suffice it to say that John is in prison because he offended the power of the world that wants to do whatever it wants to do and also wants the blessing of religion on its dark deeds.  Remember that this was before Catholic theologians looked to the world to define what is right and what is wrong.  And from prison John asks his followers to ask this astounding question of Jesus: “Are you he who is to come, do we wait for another?”

“The one who is to come” is a stock phrase for the Messiah, the one who would deliver Israel from the deepest slavery and bondage, which is the slavery of in.  He asks this question not because he does not want to make a mistake, not because he does not want to be on the wrong side.  After all, he is in prison and does not have the luxury of playing politics.  He asks this out of his faith that the Messiah will come to save his people. He asks this out of the deepest humility, for he is ready if Jesus says No, I am not the Messiah, he is ready to go on waiting.  This is humility.  Think about it.  To put aside one’s own desire for fulfillment for religious certainty, and to just want to wait in faithful patience.  This is something that most of us know nothing about, we who have been taught to expect fulfillment in an instant and always in relationship to ourselves.  No wonder why the season of Advent always passes us by.

And Jesus’s answer is not yes or no.  His answer is the evidence of what has happened. Look and hear!  The blind can see the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor are preached the Gospel.  This is evidence of what happens when God enters into the world of sickness, of sin and death.  There are physical manifestations.  And then in reference to John himself:  “Blessed are those who do not stumble over me.”  That is, blessed are those who do not see me as an obstacle to their relationship to the truth, that truth that is God.  And here he is speaking to John, who lies in prison as a witness to the truth, the truth that is ultimately Jesus Christ.

And then Jesus addresses the people who have come out to find out what happened to John the Baptist, many of whom were his followers. What spectacle did you go out to the desert to see?  A reed shaken by the wind?  These people are the groupies who went into the desert to have a religious moment, to undergo some sort of religious experience, to be thrilled by a religious emotion.  They went into the desert to get something for themselves quite contrary to why John the Baptist went into the desert.  John went to search for God in the barrenness and nothingness and silence of the desert.  They went into the desert to look and to gawk, a momentary spiritual thrill, to look, gawk.  And in their stunted religious sensibility what did they see?  A reed shaken by the wind. They saw what is most commonplace in the desert, a reed bending in the wind, part of the scenery. Because they were looking for something spectacular, something to entertain themselves religiously, they saw nothing.  They saw only the bleak scenery of the desert, they missed seeing who John was, because he was part of the desert, and they could not see him.

Then what did you go out to see, a man in delicate garments? Did you expect to see something completely unusual, something not seen in the desert, a man dressed like a king, looking like a god, impressive, confident, handsome, buff body, clothes that subtly shout “I am impressive. I am successful”?  They went out to the desert to see a show led by a showman.  But this is not John, dressed in his animal skins, wild looking, silent, tough, manly, blending into the harshness of the desert. No Vegas here.

Why did you go out, to see a prophet?  With this question Jesus brings his teaching home.  For it is John who is the last of the prophets, it is John who announces the coming of the Kingdom of God, the forerunner of the Messiah, the Christ.  This is John’s life, for this he was born, to precede, to herald, to point to the fulfillment of the yearning of Israel.  Only John could point and say: Ecce.  Ecce Agnus Dei qui tollit peccata mundi. And that is why, in Jesus’ words, no man is more blessed than John the Baptist.

Those questions. They are not asked only of that crowd who lived two thousand years ago.  They are asked of us today.  And they are asked of us today at a time of terrible corruption in the Church, at a time when the Tradition of the Church is threatened—her teaching and her liturgy attacked by those within the fold.  Why did you come here to this church, to this Mass?  Did you come here to see a reed shaken by the wind? Did you come here for the sake of ordinary religion?  Did you come here because this is what the rules of your religion tell you this is the thing to do?  Did you come here to be comforted by non-threatening scenery, did you come here to breath a sigh of relief that there is nothing here beyond what you ordinarily see, that there is in the end no difference between this and the ordinary world, that this fits in perfectly with what you know, what you are familiar with? Then with these expectations this indeed is what you will see: merely a reed shaken in the wind.

Did you come here to see a man in delicate clothes?  Did you come here to see worldly beauty, beauty that will convey the knowledge and power of the world the world that equates power with money, beauty with what money can buy? Did you come here to be impressed with a man, with his personality, his words, his intelligence, his ability to reach you with his affability and charm, his personality?  Did you come here to be made to feel good, to connect with that je ne sais quoi that always eludes you but everyone else seems to have it?  Did you come here to be wowed, to be awed, to have an experience you can tell your friends about, something that they will be interested in for one minute before their eyes glaze over because they have already moved on to the next latest experience, the just received text message?  Then you will be severely disappointed here.  Better that you should stay home, eat a bagel and do the New York Times crosswords puzzle.

Or did you come here to see a prophet—that is, did you come here to see and hear and listen  with your mind and heart what is true, what is good, what is beautiful?  Did you come here seeking the truth, and in humility put aside your assumptions, your worldliness, your superiority, your love of comfort and convenience?  Did you come here and willingly turn off your inner cell phone and dare to enter into that silence in which God dwells, to hear that sill, small voice and respond with a heart filled with joy lost in wonder, love and praise?  Did you come here to give yourself over to the one who gave himself over to you and me in an absolute way?  Did you come here to join hearts with your parents, your grandparents, your family you never knew, those countless who have come before you but with whom you are bound by the Catholic Tradition of which this Mass is the living embodiment, bound by the faith that transcends space and time, those who love you even though you have never known them but they know you because they are bound to you by the infinite love of God?  Did you come here to be in heaven, did you come here to be in the presence of the great Mother of God, Mary most holy, in the presence of St. Michael and all the angels, in the presence of Linus, Cletus, Sixtus, of Felicity and Perpetua, of Lucy and all the saints?  Do you want a taste of the reality of heaven? Then stay. Stay.  Be patient, and wait for the coming of the Lord. He will not delay.  Wait here in hope, and know that he has come, he is coming, and he will come.