The gospel scene is stark and painful. John the Baptist is sitting in the prison cell of King Herod awaiting his fate. He has no doubt that it will be a fate that will end in death. No one who ends up in the king’s prison cell has any doubt what the end result will be. As a result John is not thinking about what is going to happen to him, he does not care about those details. Rather the story tells us he is thinking about Jesus. He is wondering about Jesus and is seemingly struggling with Jesus. Jesus is not John. He does not preach like John. He does not tell vivid stories of retribution and violence as John would be inclined to share. He includes and does not exclude. What is going on? What does it all mean? John needs an answer to his questions and so he sends his disciples to ask, “Are you the one or are we to expect another?”
I think another way of putting the question might be a little more accurate. John sends his disciples to Jesus to tell him, “You certainly do not look like the one I have been expecting and you don’t act like the one that I have been preaching about. Certainly there must be another, you cannot be the one who has been promised, can you?” How difficult it must be for John to come face to face with a result that he had dedicated his whole life to and it turns out to be a result that he cannot recognize and which leaves him with far more questions than answers.
The response from Jesus that the disciples bring back to John in his prison cell is not reassuring and provides not an answer but even more questions. Not once in John’s preaching did he ever restore sight to the blind, help the lame to walk, or cleanse a leper. John was all about setting the axe to the tree and cutting it down. He was all about setting fire to the earth and letting it blaze until the wrath of God was burned-out and the cleansed and the just would emerge, terrified, wide-eyed and numb at the display of the wrath of God, but somehow alive, a remnant that was left standing. Now that was a God who could be served and obeyed and most of all feared. Who was this Father in Heaven who permitted his rain to fall on the just and the unjust? He should drench the just (to get their attention) but drown the life out of the unjust as he once inflicted the army of Pharaoh in the good old days!
I wonder how soon after the disciples returned with Jesus’s answers to his questions did the axe fall on John, when Herod the Fox in his drunkenness chose his mistress and her whims as worthy of his attention and action. Did John have a chance to consider what his disciples reported to him about Jesus? Was he able to come to any kind of peace in his own spiritual life and journey? Was he able to lay aside his vision of the world and how God should act and embrace that utterly and completely opposite vision and experience of Jesus? Did the axe ultimately fall upon him and was accepted in the peace of knowing and accepting or did it fall upon a head that was still confused and unconvinced? Of course we will never know, and it is not necessary that we do know, but it does not hurt to wonder and to ask.
Let’s face it. The spiritual story of John the Baptist, at least on the face of it, is a story that we can all relate to, in some detail if not in all of the details. How many of us struggle and continue to struggle and to question in our lives, and in our choices and in our decisions, “WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?” Is that struggle not unlike the struggle of the Baptist as this gospel illustrates? How many times would we really prefer that the answers to our prayers and our desires be something that might please the Baptist as opposed to a way of life that would please Jesus? It is and it can be a stark choice. Exclusion rather than inclusion. Punishment rather than forgiveness. In or out. One of us or one of them. Documented or undocumented. Straight or gay, or God-forbid, something in the middle. A seemingly unending litany of division and separation.
John did have one distinct advantage that perhaps we do not share. Not only did he have the clarifying vision of his life and the choices that he made in response to his vocation in life as he understood it, he also had the ultimate clarity that comes at the end of the road, when the end seems very close and a distinct possibility. In such moments it is really difficult if not impossible to be comforted by something or someone that is less than authentic. We want to know what is true, more than anything else, because we do not have the time to waste or to wait.
I hope I do not sound too disbelieving or that this suggestion might seem to be too superficial or not at all appropriate, but is it not possible that Advent, this liturgical season might be considered an opportune time for authentic clarity? One advantage that we do have as discerning adults, people with a certain level of maturity, is that we do not have to wait until the dramatic and the final moments in our lives to make a decision. We can actually choose to engage the process of discernment at any moment. Might this be such an opportune time in our lives for a little review and a little examination?
It never hurts to take time out to discern and to examine where we might find ourselves at any given moment. It can be, and often is, illuminating to put things into their proper perspective and in the process to ask also for God’s help and guidance. It is a spiritual practice that is appropriate and also helpful and it really helps us answer the bigger questions of our lives. One such question that we might ask ourselves in our time of discernment and prayer is the exact question that John asked, with a little bit of a modern twist and update: “Are you the one or are we to expect another and if you are the one, how does this reality change my life, my choices, and my decisions?”