ADVENT III– 2016 – Clearly insistent upon his destiny
“Ah, let what I am go on existing and ceasing to exist, / and let my obedience be ordered with such iron conditions / that the tremor of deaths and of births will not trouble / the deep place that I wish to keep for myself eternally. “Let him be, then, what I am, in some place and in every time, / an established and assured and ardent witness, / carefully destroying himself and preserving himself incessantly, / clearly insistent upon his destiny.” Pablo Neruda: It Means Shadows
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought too them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Matthew 11: 4-6
The quotation from Pablo Neruda captures for me the essential thrust of this passage. The poet joins Matthew to celebrate one who is “clearly insistent upon his destiny.” The gospel reading for this day is Matthew 11: 2-11. It appears also in Luke 7: 18-28. Both readings are for the most part congruent with the Q document, to which Luke adds 7:21, and 27, and Matthew adds 11: 2 and 10. That means that on the whole this reading goes back before the gospels themselves were written. Both John the Baptist and Jesus, along with their followers are part of an ancient religious tradition that expected a coming deliverance sometime in an eschatological messianic age to be ushered in with signs pointing to a specific person. This figure, variously described as the Messiah or the Son of Man, will bring about the end of the present age and the dawning of the age to come. The framework and content of this expectation is the apocalyptic hope dominant in the many deliverance movements of the time, two of which were that of John the Baptist and Jesus which announced that the kingdom of heaven is near, or has already arrived, and that participation in the kingdom of heaven would require baptism and metanoia.
There was never a great certainty as to who this messianic figure was, or whether he was already present among them. John the Baptist too was uncertain, even though he leaped in his mother’s womb when Mary the mother of Jesus greeted Elizabeth. Luke 1:41. He certainly knew Jesus, knew what Jesus was doing, but as yet he did not know definitively that Jesus was the one. John sent two of his followers to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Matt. 11:3. “The one who is to come” is a phrase associated with the messianic figure. With his coming the advent of the kingdom of heaven for which Jesus taught his followers to pray, Mt. 6:10, is secure. For the rabbis in the time of Jesus, the Messiah is definitely “the one who is to come.” Jewish hope had settled on this figure who will bring deliverance to the people. Deliverance is salvation. Jesus sent his reply to John pointing not to himself, but to what is taking place in his work. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought too them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” The language is instructive. The disciples of John came to hear and to see. Jesus tells them, look around you, here, even the deaf hear and the blind see, and more. “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” The point is now clearly made: I am He.
In Exodus, Moses went up the mountain to see and to hear, to discover something for himself. In this passage, they come to see the one who has come to cast fire upon the earth. Perhaps what we have here is an epiphany, a veiled theophany whereby Jesus is presented to the world as the one who does not simply reverse what has gone wrong, but as one who brings in the new age and the new creation.
It is strange that Jesus would point to these acts of miracle as some kind of proof of who he is. In Mt. 12:39 he refuses to give proof to “an evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Yet Jesus points to his miracles for the disciples of John. Miracle is the self-presencing of the divine that can only be witnessed through faith. That is why a faithless generation could not see it. Miracle is the reintegration of the divine and the human, the creation of wholeness and unity, the rejection and overturning of brokenness and division, the defeat of sin and death. The poor hear the gospel. Miracle is the original Word, the Word before all words that opens up a new world to be grasped by faith, where deliverance resounds in the celebration of healing.
These images of miracle speak directly to John’s question. They are images of hope fulfilled. In each phrase the words stand in contrast to one another, an unimaginable opposition under any circumstances. They are the substance of miracle, the sign that the one who is to come has arrived and is speaking with them. Perhaps it is the proper task of miracles to oppose, to stand in contrast, an image that challenges the imagination. The deaf can hear what the hearing ones cannot. The dumb can speak what the speaking ones cannot. The blind can see that the seeing one cannot. Hearing, speaking seeing are all actions that arise from the deepest source of soul. Miracles return us to that deepest source and give us hope of change, transformation, renewal, rebirth, a sense that instead of an imminent end, there is an endless beginning. When the soul lives in contrast it loses its sameness, its identity, its oneness and integrity. It is diseased. It is to this disease that the miracles of Jesus speak. In the healing of the soul the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the blind see. This is the message that Jesus sent back to John. Nothing is known of how John received it. Perhaps silence, total silence as existed before the first Word was spoken, the first “let there be” was said, perhaps that silence is the only proper response to an epiphany, a theophany.
The one who is to come is associated with Jesus in other contexts. In Mt. 21:9, when Jesus enters Jerusalem the crowds shout, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” This verse from Psalm 118:26 may be an indication that the religious people in the crowds were certain that the eschatological hope had been fulfilled and that the Messiah had finally come.
The Revelation of John which I have presented elsewhere as a comprehensive presentation of the Passion of Christ and the Passion of the Church, has some interesting statements in this regard. In Rev. 1:1-3 “the time is near,” for “what must soon take place.” The writer who identifies himself as “John, your brother,” greets the churches of Asia in the name of “him who is and who was and who is to come.” Rev. 1:4. “He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him.” 1:7. All will know who he is. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and was and is to come.” 1:8. Later, in what appears to be a liturgical scene, the congregation sings, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God almighty, who was and is and is to come. “ Rev. 4:8. The one who is to come is identified with the Divine. His coming with the clouds suggests that there is a theophany, somewhat akin to the Transfiguration, in which he is revealed to the churches.
The opening scene of the Revelation of John is an amazing piece of the literature of hope. The Kairos is near, that is the theme. Kairos must confront chronos, this was the inevitable conflict from of old. It is the conflict of heaven and earth; spirit and flesh; eternity and time. This final battle must be waged. And it is now – for Kairos has arrived.
Chronos, earth’s first and final gift to humanity, the abyss that existed before the earth itself came to be, is time’s vortex that swallows equally the living and the dead. Time is the other face of death, my own face that knows and does not know that there is no exit. This gift of time from the earth, which only the earth is capable of giving, which it alone is destined to give, silently speaks what is uniquely human: tragedy. Tragedy is earth’s purest and unique gift to humans. Only humans can receive it. What is tragic stands in need of what is human, for only humans can name it, with a naming that is simultaneously an invocation that rouses tragedy from its slumber within time’s breast and brings it to presence within the one creature that is destined to receive it. Tragedy is the offspring of time; or perhaps, time is the offspring of tragedy, for their essence is the same. What is the same can exist only as itself; it can never gather to itself what it is not. Tragedy, time, cannot gather to itself that which is human, for what is human does not share the sameness as they do. It is, rather, that humans who can live only so long as they live openly to what is to come, to the future, who can gather time and tragedy to themselves.
Human existence is sustained by its openness to what is to come, and tragedy has found its home in that openness. The one who is to come has arrived with no other objective than to enter the openness which is humanity itself and to take into himself all that tragedy has nurtured there, and to confront it. He alone knows that tragedy cannot be stopped, that it has no end, being as eternal as the earth from which it arises. He who comes alone knows that tragedy can only be transfigured. Only in the transfiguration of tragedy can that which is human transcend sin and suffering and death. The deaf who now hear can grasp this, and perhaps the hearing ones of old can hear: Adam, Gilgamesh, Oedipus, Lear, me. This is chronos. It awaits me, bears me, devours me. It is completely unaware that it is about to be devoured. The one who is to come has arrived. That is the gospel proclamation. Transcendent time, Kairos, is dawning soon, and has already arrived, and with its dawning comes the hope for deliverance from sin and suffering and death.
Kairos is the ground of hope, and Kairos, divine time, is grounded in the one who was and is and is to come. The divine with whom Kairos is integrated, transcends the momentary suffering, descends into that suffering as the human one, and presents itself to a suffering world and suffering church as the one who has “freed us by his blood,” who has made us into a “kingdom,” made us “priests,” and to whom we give glory, forever and ever.” The divine, the transcendent incarnate one, calls forth the church and summons the priests to a new awareness that will reveal the one who is already there, but who nevertheless paradoxically, is coming soon, that is, coming out of his hiddenness into the openness of suffering and death, so that “every eye will see him.” Kairos unveils what chronos has hidden. And the church has to be reminded of this unveiling, this revelation, repeatedly, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is and was and is to come.” The Alpha, the beginning, Kairos before chronos, has not left us. The beginning has accompanied us on this journey of faith and suffering, faith through suffering, the human narrative that itself seeks redemption. The Omega that is about to dawn has always already been present. It is none other than the Alpha in its Otherness that has remained hidden until now. The end is the beginning in its total otherness, and is not to be feared. This is the true and proper ground of hope. The divine transcendent one, the Origin and Source, remains Origin and Source, and only as such can it call us forth to undertake the journey home. The divine arrives as the one who is to come, to become who we are, and in so doing, accompanies us home.
Other passages refer to the Son of Man who comes in glory to inaugurate the final signs of the coming kingdom of heaven. It is clear that the early church did not accept Jesus immediately as the one who is to come. John the Baptist’s question is easily the question which the church was asking. Gradually the church accepted him as can be seen from the documentation in the New Testament.
While John the Baptist was wondering if Jesus was the one who is to come, Jesus had his own concerns about John. The disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus shared a common belief in deliverance by the Messiah in the eschatological age to come. They differed on just who is the messianic figure. When the disciples of John had departed, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about who John is. Three times he asked them, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” He was sure that they did not go out to see a “reed shaken by the wind,” that is, someone whose mind changes as rapidly as the shifting winds. Jesus knew John as someone who held strong beliefs, and would hold them even if his life was threatened, and even if in the end he would be executed for his action and his beliefs. Jesus knew that John was not someone who prided himself in “soft robes,” but who chose the harsh life of the desert to hone his prophetic preaching. The answer is that they went out to see a prophet. “Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” Mt. 11:10. He quotes Malachi 3:1, relating John the Baptist to the messenger that God will send in the messianic times to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, himself. Jewish eschatological hopes had signaled that before the Messiah arrives, he would be preceded by Elijah. Jesus himself says, “For all the prophets and law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” Mt. 11:13-14. Similarly, Mt. 17: 10-12. John is more than a prophet, he is more than a messenger, he is Elijah who has returned from heaven with the announcement that the one who is to come has arrived. “Truly, I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet even the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Mt. 11:`11. Jesus has made clear to the crowds just who John the Baptist is. Great as he is though, John is not the Messiah. John’s task is to announce the Messiah. Jesus also makes clear who he himself is. “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Jesus points to himself. I am He. He is clearly insistent upon his destiny.
Who are the “least” in the kingdom of heaven? There is an answer in Matthew 25. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Mt. 25: 35-36. These are the one who are least: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. 25:40. In addition are the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead who are raised, and the poor who have the good news. These are the least in the kingdom of heaven, and each of these is greater than John the Baptist.
From now on the proclamation is “Go and tell!”