Advent 3A - John the Baptist: What do you see and hear?

Thomas O’Loughlin
Introduction to the Celebration

In these weeks before Christmas our reflection and prayer as a community focus on the various ways that the Lord is near to us:
he is the One who is continually coming into our world with his good news of liberation and joy; we are the people who welcome him and become his hands, and mouth, and feet. So we can now reflect on the joyfulness that is ours because we are in Christ’s presences — he is near to us; but we must regret the times when our actions have been far from him.
Michel de Verteuil
General comments
The passage is clearly in two sections:
Verses 2 to 6: The meeting between John’s disciples and Jesus.
Verses 7 to 11: Jesus speaks of John.

You can read verses 2 to 5 as a journey into a deeper faith which John the Baptist made, letting your meditation guide you to interpret this journey from your own experience. What was John’s prison? Why did he send disciples? What was the purpose of his question?
You can, on the other hand, concentrate on Jesus, looking at his ministry for example, or, if you prefer, looking at how he responded to the question of John’s disciples. You might like to enter deeply into the final saying in verse 6, identifying with the ‘blessedness’ spoken of by Jesus.

If you are meditating on verses 7 to 10, enter into the movement of the passage, identifying with the two options that Jesus puts forward – the ‘reed swaying in the breeze’ and the ‘man in fine clothes’ – before identifying with who John the Baptist really was. The passage invites us to make that journey before arriving there.

Verse 11 is a paradox and you must identify with both aspects of it, until you experience that things which seemed at first contradictory can, in fact, come together in harmony. As always, personal experience must be your guide.

John Litteton

During Advent we are a people in waiting. Advent is a hope- filled time, a time of expectation and anticipation But, most of all, it is a time of waiting: waiting for the Messiah to arrive in our lives and in the world. His first arrival, when he was born in a stable, may be commemorated at Christmas. Or his second arrival, when he will come as King and Judge on the Last day, may be anticipated. Or his daily coming into our lives, in prayer, people and activities, may be acknowledged.

Waiting is part of all our lives. However, if the time we spend waiting is to be useful, our waiting must be purposeful. This means that we must wait properly for people, events and outcomes, always using the time effectively and efficiently to prepare for them. If we do not, the time spent waiting is wasted. And, regrettably, there is so much wasted time in our lives.

An essential quality of purposeful or effective waiting is patience. For example, if we become impatient while waiting for retirement from work or for the school term to finish, we simply waste that time. Impatience leads to frustration, anxiety, anger, cynicism and, ultimately, unhappiness Unhappiness prevents us from doing anything constructive to sustain and prepare us while we wait. Our waiting is in vain and, inevitably, we are not ready when the time finally comes.

Similarly, if we do not use these days of Advent properly by waiting patiently for Christ to come into our lives at Christmas — especially by recognising and welcoming him in the sacraments and in other people then we will not be ready to meet him when he comes. Frustration, anxiety, anger and cynicism are alien to the hope-filled spirit of Advent.

We need to be patient as we wait for the Lord’s arrival. When John the Baptist was in prison, having heard about Jesus’ ministry, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to Wait for somebody else?’ (Mt 11:3). John was the last in a long line of prophets who had been waiting for generations for the Messiah to come.

John and his disciples were privileged but not all of them realised that the Messiah had arrived even when Jesus sent this clear message to John: ‘Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor
(Mt 11:4-5).

The message of Advent, then, is that we should wait patiently for the Lord to come into our lives. Our waiting can be a time of enrichment during which some positive change occurs.

Even as we await Jesus’ arrival at Christmas, he is present to us in word and sacrament. But he is also present to us in the words and gestures of other people, if only we would become more astute in recognising him. It is only when we are patient that we avoid the frustration prevalent in the lives of many people that, in turn, prevents them from being truly open to the presence and influence of Christ at Christmas.

Homily notes

1. The time of wishing ‘Happy Christmas’ is already here: the adverts are full of holly and ‘Christmas Cheer’; the diary is full of Christmas related events; and ‘getting ready’ is an urgent state of being. So what if you are one of those people who find the whole thing a drag? Find Christmas a time of stress? Just cannot wait for the spring light? Or think it is all overplayed? It probably means that you suffer in silence as it appears to be ‘not the done thing’ to be ‘down on Christmas’. Alternatively, one can just feel guilty and stressed that one is ‘not feeling as one ought to feel’. Then there is the question of the family, the in-laws, or the tensions of all the extra people in the house. Preachers can often so idealise ‘the family’, that they ignore the real pain of many of their hearers and this, in effect, alienates them from the gospel’s message.

2. The simple fact is that many people hate Christmas, wish it would pass quickly, dismiss it as only important if there are children to be entertained, or a time of loneliness. This is a significant group in any community; they are not to be likened to Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; and their feelings should find expression at some point in the liturgy. Preaching is about helping people grow in wisdom and holiness, not simply the broadcasting of ‘our message’ over and over in the manner of religion channels on television. So how does one engage with the people for whom the whole Christmas thing is painful?

3. Step 1: Acknowledge that that these attitudes exist and are worthy of being taken seriously. No one should feel that they could be dismissed as ‘party poopers’ or for ‘not getting into the spirit of the thing’. Christmas is a time of heightened emotions, complex memories, and a series of stress inducing deadlines due to the various tasks that have to be done before such and such a moment.

4. Step 2: Even if Christmas is a pain for you, human beings celebrate collective memories of all sorts of things and this is a basic element in every religion and culture. Such special times are as old as humanity, as the stones of Newgrange and Stonehenge bear mute witness. You may find it ‘ a pain’ but without such common memories we would not be bound to­gether as a society. Moreover, without ‘high days’ the pass­ing of time would have a grim monotony. We are creatures that need special times and ordinary time. Here is part of the genius of the gospel with its cycle of festivals rooted simultaneously in the cycles of nature (Christmas is linked to mid­winter, the original pasch was a spring-time agricultural feast) and the revelation of God’s love in the incarnation and paschal mystery. We may not be ‘in tune’ with Christmas merriment, but without an annual cycle we would be diminished as human beings and as Christians. It is worth recalling the proverb’ A change is as good as a rest’: Christmas marks a change from the ordinary – even if it is only because it annoys us so – and any change is an opportunity to take stock of our lives and ways of life. If Christmas really does ‘turn you off,’ then it can be a call to self-reflection and growth in self-knowledge.

3. Step 3. During the 1960s, when the calendar was being reformed, there were many publications suggesting that either Christmas should be abandoned as distracting from the annual Christian feast (Easter) or arguing that since the December date had been so overlaid with cultural celebrations that the Christian feast was apparently an ‘add-on’ and these writers urged that the feast be moved to another date during the year. Neither suggestion was acted upon -luckily both suggestions were so daft that they did not stand a chance of getting through – but it does raise an interesting question for us as people who are celebrating Christmas as a feast and not simply as the time of the winter party. Let us imagine that the feast of the nativity were moved to, for ex­ample, 1 September; what would we be celebrating? This is a useful question as it can help us separate out the Christian recollection from the mistletoe-bedecked merriment; and so can help people who do not like Christmas to separate the feast which is a key part of memory as believers from the merriment and the stress. So what really would we celebrate on 1 September if in a future revision of the calendar the nativity of the Christ were so moved? You should point out, by the way, that such a change is fully within the competence of the Church – for we sometimes think that there is Christmas existing in itself quite apart from the Christmas communities that celebrate it: a classic case of confusing effect with cause.

4. That final question, if we moved Christmas Day from 25 December to 1 September, may help those who dislike Christmas to hear their experience reflected in the homily, but it is useful question to pose to every member of the gathering to help them clarify her/his mind on what we as Christians are recalling.

Scriptural prayers

“Our philosophy of history constitutes a sort of intellectual prison. We carry on as if we have been reduced to impotence and are completely incapable of any initiative on our own behalf.”     Lloyd Best

Lord, we are in a prison.
We are all the time looking for the one who is to come and save us,
and if this one does not satisfy us, we say that we must look for someone else.
Send us leaders like Jesus who will make us hear and see
the great things you are doing among us:
people who were lame now standing up and doing things for themselves;
others finding new energy to live creatively;
the poor discovering the good news that they are not poor at all.

Leaders like this will teach us the blessedness of not losing faith in ourselves.

Lord, we often read in the Bible of your great power,
how you have laid your axe to the roots of the trees
and any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down
and thrown on the fire;
and how the winnowing fan is in your hand
and you will soon clear your threshing floor of chaff.
Yet, like John the Baptist, we find ourselves still imprisoned
by the injustice of the world.
You are teaching us the blessed way of Jesus which is to conquer evil by doing good.

Lord, we thank you that in many parts of the world
the church is not concerned with answering abstract questions
such as ‘Are you the one who is to come?’
but, like Jesus, is inviting people to hear and see how the blind are seeing again,
the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear,
the dead are raised to life and Good News is proclaimed to the poor.

“It is no business whatever of the Christian churches to be keeping people passive and morally well-behaved while all the major questions of their lives are settled by others.”   Dr John Vincent, President of the Methodist Conference of the United Kingdom
Lord, we pray that when people come to the church,
they may not find us following meekly the dictates of the powerful,
like reeds swaying in the breeze,
nor concerned with fine garments, like people who live in palaces.
May they find a prophet and more than a prophet,
an institution that will show up the false values of our society
and so prepare the way for your chosen ones to carry out your work in the world.

“One day our grandchildren will visit each other and wonder what all the pain and bloodshed were for. And perhaps they will be proud of us, that we foresaw the happy future which they will take for granted.”   An Israeli woman writing to an Arab friend
Lord, help us, like John the Baptist, to play our part in history,
content in knowing that what we have worked hard and suffered to achieve,
the least significant of the next generation will enjoy as a matter of course.

“Looking to the past has much to offer; living in it nothing at all.”          John Harriot
Lord, the church today is very different from how it was some years ago:
- the various forms of lay ministry;
- collaboration with other churches and with people of other faiths;
- the contribution of every culture;
- the Bible opened to all.
Like Jesus remembering John the Baptist,
we remember with gratitude great people of the past
who could not accept these things.
None of us was as great as them,
but we must rejoice in all that even the least of us knows today.


1.     Andrew Greeley 


 The early Church continues its dialogue with the followers of the Baptist in today's story, again "slanting" the story to make it look like John asked Jesus who he was and Jesus replied by applying to himself one of the messianic prophecies of Isaiah. We may doubt that the actual conversation took place the way that is described, though there certainly was a tradition among the earliest Christians that Jesus applied to himself the words of that prophecy. From the very beginning Jesus people understood that a necessary consequence of their faith was service to those who suffered. 

 This understanding survives even today as the Pope made clear in his talks at the United Nations several years ago and as the American Bishops have often done when they excoriated those in our society who wish to blame the poor and the elderly and the immigrants not only for their own problems but also for the problems of the rest of the country. It is not our role to take positions on specific legislation or suggested public policy. But there is a meanness and an anger in American public life today which followers of Jesus cannot accept. Nor can we pretend that it is acceptable to our tradition that a situation continue in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The Gospel remains a stumbling block to those who believe that the way to be a success in the business world is by cutting the salaries of your workers or firing them.


  Once upon a time a group of young people (teen age boys if the truth be told) were playing basketball on the parish courts. An bald African American man, with a large diamond in his ear, strolled up and watched them. He looked kind of familiar but the boys knew it couldn’t be. He asked if he might play. He was taller than any of them and they weren’t sure. He promised he would not rebound. So they let him play.

 He was pretty good. In fact he was truly excellent. Without even working up a sweat, he made three point jump shots, lay-ups, hooks, and even shots with his eyes closed. Either hand too. They had seen this style before, but they still didn’t believe it was the one they thought it might be.  

 Then he spent about fifteen minutes give them tips which were really radical. Hadn’t they seen this act in TV ads? But it would never happen in their parish, would it? Then he thanked them for letting him play and ambled away. They kind of wanted to follow him to see if he really drove a Chevy, because that would clinched it . But they didn’t. They didn’t tell anyone about what happened. Who would believe that MJ himself had come to their school yard and shot around with them.  

 Besides they didn’t believe it was really him.  

2.     Connections: 

“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.” Matthew 11: 2-11 


The picture of John the Baptizer in today’s Gospel is quite different from last Sunday’s thundering, charismatic figure preaching to the crowds along the Jordan.  John has been imprisoned by Herod for publicly denouncing the king's incestuous marriage to Herodias.  Left to waste away in prison, John knew that his end was near.  John had staked his life on proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, and his witness will soon cost him his life.  Like any human being, John had to wonder if he had been deluding himself.  John and the people of Judaism had been expecting a much different kind of Messiah than the gentle, humble Worker of wonders from Nazareth.  And so, John sends friends to ask Jesus if he is, in fact, the long-awaited Messiah.

Jesus sends the messengers back to John to report all they have seen Jesus do, fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah and the prophets of old.  While praising John for his faithful witness to the Messiah, Jesus tells his followers that great things will come to all who become prophets of the reign of God. 


Advent/Christmas is the season of hope:  The birth of Christ restores our dreams for “blossoming deserts” (Reading 1) and new harvests, for renewed relationships with God and with one another.

The Christ of Christmas comes to heal the divisions among families and friends, to re-create our world in the mercy and justice of the Messiah, to renew our lives in the joy and hope of the God of unimaginably endless love.

John's question, Are you the Messiah?, confronts us with the apparent silence of God in our secular, amoral society.  We must come to recognize the Messiah in the humble, merciful, liberating person of Jesus, the healer and reconciler.

The question Jesus pose -- What did you go out to the desert to see?  -- challenges us to take on the hard and never-ending Advent work of conversion and re-creation, of rediscovering what we want are lives to be for and about. 

Walking among the reeds  

You’re working 60 to 70 hours a week; you’re lucky if you get six hours of sleep a night.  Making income cover expenses is becoming a bigger challenge every month — and, in the meantime, your spouse and children — the people you live for — are becoming strangers.  What did you go out to the desert to see?

You juggle a wide network of acquaintances.  The e-mails never stop; there’s not an empty line in your calendar book; your cell phone is permanently clipped to your ear.  But you can’t seem to shake the loneliness you feel in the most crowded rooms.  While you maintain contact with a host of business associates and colleagues, precious few of them do you consider friends and no one close to being special.  What did you go out to the desert to see? 

Every semester you scan the course offerings:  This course I need to graduate . . . this class meets at a good time . . . this professor is a nightmare . . . this lecturer is an easy A . . . God, look at this reading list — no way! 

What did you go out to the desert to see? 

What did you go out to the desert to see?  What are you looking for? Jesus’ question takes on particular urgency in the Advent of our lives:  As we struggle to make ends meet, have the means become an end in themselves?  Has the love and support of family and friends become just another asset?  Are we satisfied merely with learning and achievement that we can list on our resumes or do we want to learn and become truly educated human beings?  John’s call to transform our lives in the things of God and Jesus’ Gospel of humble compassion certainly resonate in our broken hearts and despairing spirits — but are we willing to take on the hard work of conversion and re-creation?  May we rediscover in this holy season what we want are lives to be for and, with the Messiah’s grace, continue that work of re-creation in every season of our lives.    

3.     Fr. Charles Irvin 

“Are you the one who is to come, or do we look for another?”

As you live out life as a Christian, trying to make the life of Jesus a reality in your own life, many are going to be observing you. In key moments, some people are going to be looking to you for help, hope maybe you’ll be their salvation, their way out. Very indirectly, perhaps very quietly, or perhaps quite directly, they might ask you: ARE YOU THE ONE WHO CAN HELP ME… WHO CAN BRING ME SALVATION IN THIS MESS… OR DO I LOOK FOR ANOTHER? 

You are a Christian. You openly and publicly bear the name of Christ… and you do it for all to see. You identify yourself as a Catholic. You attend Mass… receive the Sacraments. As a result people are going to look at you… to examine your actions… to look into your life. And they will ask you questions about why you are a Catholic.

You have been baptized. You have been confirmed. As we heard John the Baptist declare in last Sunday’s Gospel, he only baptized with water, but the One who is to come would baptize in the Fire of the Holy Spirit. 

Having been marked with the signs of Baptism and Confirmation, and having been joined into Christ’s Mystical Body in Holy Communion, the Church now sends you into the world around us. With Jesus, you are one who is sent. The word “Mass” is derived from “missa” , mission, being sent. You come to Mass to receive in order to be sent, in order to share what you have received. 

And so as a baptized and confirmed Christian, as a representative of Christ, openly living the Christian life, you will encounter people who will be looking at you and your life and asking: “Are you the one who is to come, or do we look for another?” Is your Faith real, is your Faith true and right, or do we look to another? One of the reasons why Pope Francis is popular is that he is real.

John the Baptist asked that question of Jesus because he wasn’t so sure about Jesus. Oh, he had heard reports about Christ. He’s heard rumors about His miracles, miracles that we done quietly, privately, only for a few individuals and without any dazzling, public display. John had even baptized Jesus with a baptism of repentance, an ancient Jewish religious practice that was not uncommon. John the Baptist had done that at the beginning of Christ’s public life. John was quite sure about Jesus at that point, telling everyone that he, John, wasn’t even worthy to carry Jesus sandals. But now? Well…. he just wasn’t so sure anymore. You see Jesus hadn’t as yet liberated the Jews from the yoke of the Romans and their occupying army. Jesus hadn’t vindicated the Jews in front of the whole world, and so John wasn’t so sure that Jesus really was the Messiah, the Savior, after all. 

Well, Jesus sent a reply back to John via John’s own messengers. Tell him, Jesus replied what you see and hear: the blind see once again, the crippled can now walk, hopeless lepers have skin that is clean once again, people that couldn’t hear can now hear and speak again, dead men are raised back into living again, and men and women who were without hope now hear good news. And happy are they who are not disappointed in me! 

What, we must now ask, will be the message others receive about your life and mine? What kinds of things are happening in your life and mine that will give men and women hope? What will answer their insistent call to you: “Are you the one who is to come, or do we look for another?”

Each one of us here should be able to give the answer that Jesus gave. People that know us should be able to see, to have a vision and see what the meaning and purpose of human life is all about. They can dream the dreams that we dream. There is light in our lives, a light that shines in the darkness, a light that points to hope, the hope of eventual victory… the hope of the triumph of good over evil… the hope of peace… a light that reveals the presence of salvation in our lives. The blind, the spiritually blind, in other words, ought to be able to see God’s presence in humanity because of us.

 Then there are the crippled. Others can see in us, or ought to see, a person who is actively doing something about the downtrodden in our world. We have, for instance, the Alternative Christmas Tree in the back of our church. Through it we are not giving money to some cause or some organized charity. And please don’t misunderstand me – many of those things are noble, very worthy and wonderful organizations. Here, however, we have an opportunity to directly respond to folks nearby as ones who are giving them gifts from God. 

The lepers? All around us there are persons whose skins crawl with self-hatred. There are those who have been ostracized by others, cast away and left to shift for themselves. They are the lonely, the socially underdeveloped, the so-called freaks, and so on. Do we regard them as lepers and refuse to even get near them, or even breathe the air that they breathe? “Are you the one who is to come, or do we look for another, O Christian?” 

And there are the deaf… those who can’t communicate… those who listen but do not hear. There are those who don’t understand Christianity… or Jesus… who have never really heard about Jesus Christ… who haven’t studied His personality… His character… and who would like to. Can you and I be answers to their prayers? Can we reveal Jesus to them in who we are and what we do? 

And we are sent, finally, to raise the dead back to life again. I suppose for us it means going to those in our lives who are exhausted, worn out, dead tired, and giving them the energy of our love… giving them the power of our love, our enthusiasm. It means spending a lot of time and energy on them… our own time and lots of our precious energy… helping them to break out of their shell and bring them back into life again. It means giving them hope… something to live for… a life full of beauty, wonder, awe, goodness, and all of those things that make life really worth living. It means giving good news to those who are near death and have nothing but bad news because they have lost hope.

And so, Christian, as Christmas comes to you once again – Happy are those who are not disappointed in you. You are the one sent by God into their lives so that they need not look for another! 

4.     Fr. Ray E Atwood, sj 

Complaining and criticizing undermines community


In the Person of Jesus, God has come to heal and save the human race. Jesus came to save, and not condemn, humanity. As we patiently and joyfully await the fulfillment of his Advent, we need to cease complaining about, and criticizing, one another. Criticism causes various kinds of harm to individuals, as well as the Christian community.   

 “Do not complain, brothers and sisters, about one another, that you may not be judged” (Jas. 5:9). A young musician’s concert was poorly received by the critics. The famous Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, consoled him by patting him on the shoulder and saying, “Remember, son, there is no city in the world where they have erected a statue to a cynic.”

Cynicism, criticism, and complaining are like termites. They slowly, but surely, eat away at the building blocks of a community. Criticism undercuts the spirit of community, and disrupts initiative and effort. It is easy to criticize others when you don’t have any ideas of your own.

In the second reading, James advises his community to be patient. He was dealing with people who were anxious and fearful because the Lord had not returned in glory. The Lord came to save us and, upon His return in glory, everything will be brought to its completion. In the meantime, we have to live in the real world, a world full of tension, conflict, uncertainty, and misunderstanding. Christians faced the challenges of community inside their ranks, and persecution from outside their ranks. James counseled patient endurance in these uncertain times. As he puts it, “the coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:8).

A father and his son took a donkey to the market. The man sat on the beast, and the boy walked. People along the way said, “What a terrible thing, a big strong fellow sitting on the donkey’s back, while the youngster has to walk.” So the father dismounted, and the son took his place. Soon onlookers remarked, “How terrible, this man walking, and the little boy sitting.” At that, they both got on the donkey’s back—only to hear others say, “How cruel, two people sitting on one donkey.” Off they came. But other bystanders commented. “How crazy, the donkey has nothing on his back and two people are walking.” Finally, they were both carrying the donkey. They never did make it to market.”  

That old story makes a good point: we can always find something or someone to criticize. We can always come up with little critiques about the behavior of our brothers and sisters. But our criticism often says more about ourselves than the people we are criticizing. Someone once said: “People who try to whittle you down are only trying to reduce you to their size.” Are you whittling others down by your harsh comments and unconstructive criticism? What does your criticism of others say about you?

Empress Catherine II of Russia once said: “I praise loudly; I blame softly.” That little phrase could, if lived out, help many Christians, and Christian communities, grow and prosper. A seminary professor once told me that encouragement, praise, and support are the grease that runs the engine of parish life. And I have found that to be true. Praising people loudly, and blaming them softly, accomplishes much good. It’s amazing to witness how peoples’ faces light up when they receive compliments instead of criticism.

This is Gaudete, or “Rejoice,” Sunday. We wear rose-colored vestments, light a rose-colored candle, and reflect on the theme of joy. The Church reminds us that joy is part of the anticipation of the Lord’s coming. Joy is one of the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:22). Joyful people reflect the presence and activity of the Spirit in their lives. Our lives would be much better if we had more joyful people, and fewer critics. But this means breaking bad habits, and making or cultivating good habits. It means changing how we live, and that’s tough to do, especially as you grow older. But with God’s grace, amazing things are possible. He can turn the biggest cynic into the greatest supporter.

A help-wanted sign put it well: “Wanted—Christians who overlook their brothers’ and sisters’ faults as easily as they do their own.” Our homes, our families, our schools, our workplaces, our society, and our world need more people who overlook the faults of others as easily as they overlook their own. May we live out the call to Christian discipleship by offering less criticism, and more praise. Mary, Mother of Charity, pray for us. Amen.


1.     In his book Horns and Halos 

Dr. J. Wallace Hamilton tells about one of the weirdest auction sales in history; and it was held in Washington, D.C., in 1926, where 150,000 patented models of old inventions were declared obsolete and placed on the auction block for public auction. Prospective buyers and on-lookers chuckled as item after item was put up for bid; such as a "bed-bug buster" or an "illuminated cat" that was designed to scare away mice. Then there was a device to prevent snoring. It consisted of a trumpet that reached from the mouth to the ear; and was designed to awaken the snorer and not the neighbors. And then there was the adjustable pulpit that could be raised or lowered according to the height of the preacher.

Needless to say, this auction of old patent models was worth at least 150,000 laughs; but if we would look into this situation a little deeper, we would discover that these 150,000 old patent models also represent 150,000 broken dreams. They represented a mountain of disappointments.

It may seem inappropriate to talk about broken dreams and disappointments this close to Christmas. After all, this is the season to be jolly. But it's not jolly for everybody, is it? For those who have lost loved ones this is the loneliest time of the year. And in a world that glorifies materialism, those who are struggling financially may find it to be most disappointing.

Our friend John the Baptist knew about disappointment. John is in prison now and he's looking for a sign - a sign that the long-awaited Messiah has really arrived. That's ironic, don't you think? John the Baptist is the one who first proclaimed his coming. But much has happened to John since we last saw him preaching and baptizing people in the wilderness, and now his heart is cast down.

You'll remember John's message was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This message burned in John's soul...

It is one of those moments parents hope for, even dream about. But it is one of those moments parents are never quite sure will ever come about. It is the moment when you pick up your child from a play date, or birthday party, or sleep-over, and the parent hosting the event declares how well behaved and polite your child has been.

Suddenly all those countless drills and dramas about saying "please" and "thank you" or "take turns" or "share" or "be kind to others" are rewarded. It is good to know that even when you are NOT looking, even when you are NOT "hand's on," that the long arm of loving influence and life-lessons continue to bear good fruit in the world.

Children are not born with good manners. Children are not characterized by congenital civility. One of the most common injuries in toddler day-care centers is of children being bitten by other children. Reinhold Niebuhr, the great 20th century theologian, confessed that an infant, no matter how cute, was infallible proof of the doctrine of original sin.  

It takes years of patience and endurance and constant care to teach toddlers that instead of snarling and snapping over their crackers and crayons, they should willingly share them with others. It is a hard lesson to learn. But it is the first crucial step necessary to create compassionate human beings out of competitive creatures. And it is a lesson we never can stop learning, throughout the length of our lives.  

As the world both mourned the death and celebrated the life of Nelson Mandela last week, there were the musings of those who wondered what more might have been accomplished had he not been imprisoned for those twenty seven years by his government...
2.     Knee Deep In Alligators

Did you ever hear the expression, "When you're knee-deep in alligators and copperheads, it's hard to remember that your primary objective was to clean out the swamp?" That's how I imagine John the Baptist must have felt as he stared at those damp, cold walls of Herod's dungeon, day after day, knowing in his heart that only a miracle would allow him to leave this place alive. Wouldn't you be scared in that predicament? Wouldn't you begin to question your "core beliefs" if you knew that those very beliefs were responsible for your impending doom?

Johnny Dean
3.     Timing Is Everything

I was reading about steamships. It was a wonderful article in which the author said that the dream of a self-propelled ship had been a dream of humankind for hundreds of years. Then one day the time came when it was theoretically possible, but it was still not practically possible. The dream was kept alive for another hundred years or so by inventors and experimenters, some of whom were considered to be eccentric. Later on people looked back and said of them, they were just ahead of their time.

Then the times changed. The next person to come along wasRobert Fulton. It was not so much that Fulton invented the steamboat, but that he just happened to be there when the time was right. As the author wrote, "The inventor's eminence may be more a trick of chronology than anything else, due to being active at the very moment when fruition was possible." It's a wonderful statement. It tells you that timing is everything.

That's what we learn from the Bible. Look at our lesson for this morning. The disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus, and ask, "Are you the one, or do we look for another?" It is a critical question for John. John has preached that the time has come. The Messiah, he said, is about to appear, so repent, get ready, put your lives in order. He has devoted his whole life to the belief that the time has come. But he is in prison now. He is about to lose his head. So he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one that we have been waiting for, or do we still look for somebody else?"

Mark Trotter, Collected Sermons,
4.     Who Jesus Really Is

I don't know where life may be defeating you this Advent. I don't know how Jesus may be disappointing you this Advent. But I would suggest to you this Advent that any disillusionment you feel may not necessarily be a bad thing. For what is disillusionment if not, literally, the loss of an illusion? And, in the long run, it is never a bad thing to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.

Did Jesus fail to come when you rubbed the lantern?
Then perhaps Jesus is not a genie.

Did Jesus fail to punish your enemies?
Then perhaps Jesus is not a cop.

Did Jesus fail to make everything run smoothly?
Then perhaps Jesus is not a mechanic.

Over and over again, our disappointments draw us deeper and deeper into
who Jesus really is ... and what Jesus really does.

William A. Ritter, Collected Sermons,
5.     The Controlling Emotion of Fear

H. A. Williams, one of the leading preachers and theologians of the Church of England, titled his autobiography, Someday I'll Find You. That may seem like an unusual title for an autobiography, but if you read the book, as I did when I was a seminary student, it begins to make sense.

You see, there was a period in Dr. Williams' life when he was almost totally incapacitated by phobic anxieties. He was afraid to into the streets and marketplaces, afraid of elevators and escalators, afraid to ride on trains or buses or subways, afraid of flying - you name it, he was afraid of it! Eventually he became so overcome with fear that he was partially paralyzed, and it was only after years of psychoanalysis and treatment that he was able to conquer his fear and go on with his life.

Fear is one of the most controlling emotions of life. Most of us don't like to think of ourselves as fearful people. We prefer to think of ourselves as strong and independent, as though we had the world by the tail and are just waiting for it to say "uncle," as if we were capable of taking on all comers. "I am strong, I am invincible," to borrow a line from one of my all-time least favorite songs. It just ain't so, folks! None of us are "invincible," male or female. Every one of us, at one time or another has felt the cold grip of fear and felt helpless to do anything about it.

Johnny Dean,
6.     We Can't See What Is Before Us, We Are Never Content

In a Peanuts comic strip Lucy is speaking with Linus at the base of a hill. She says, "Someday I'm going over that hill and find the answer to my dreams.... Someday I'm going over that hill and find hope and fulfillment. I think, for me, all the answers to life lie beyond these clouds and over the grassy slopes of that hill!"

Linus removes his thumb from his mouth, points toward the hill, and responds: "Perhaps there's another little kid on the other side of that hill who is looking this way and thinking that all the answers to life lie on this side of the hill." Lucy looks at Linus, then turns toward the hill and yells, "Forget it, kid!"

Brett Blair,
7.     Where Is the Fire?

We get this comforting idea that if we follow the Messiah life will somehow be smoother, or at least all fit together in some "good" way. Then we run smack into the reality that the only guarantee Jesus made to us had to do with the activities that come after this life. In fact, Jesus very clearly expected that his followers would have a harder time getting through this life than those who walked away. But we still have these expectations of a "Savior" and when Jesus doesn't meet them we begin to wonder if he is really who we thought he was. There are thousands of empty church pews that used to be full of people who believed in Jesus Christ. But then he didn't live up to their expectations and they went home. Their families still fought, they still had some frightening decisions to make, and they still couldn't make ends meet on a budget. They began to wonder if they had made a mistake with Jesus.

Maybe that's what happened to John. He said that he had come to baptize with water, and that the one following him would baptize with "fire from heaven." So where was the fire? So far there wasn't even smoke. So far, the Pharisees and Sadducees were still in charge of the faith, and Rome was still in charge of the government. In fact, instead of bringing in the kingdom, Jesus had kept pretty quiet up north while John got himself arrested and thrown into one of Herod's dungeons on a mountaintop down by the Dead Sea. That might make a person ask some questions. Is this any way for a Messiah to behave?

At least I hope that's what happened with John. If John the Baptist, as high up as he ranked, still had some questions, maybe there is room for me and mine.

John B. Jamison, Time's Up!, CSS Publishing Company
8.     Only Jesus

An anonymous author made this striking comparison: "Socrates taught for 40 years, Plato for 50, Aristotle for 40, and Jesus for only 3. Yet the influence of Christ's 3-year ministry infinitely transcends the impact left by the combined 130 years of teaching from these men, who were among the greatest philosophers of all antiquity.

Jesus painted no pictures yet some of the finest paintings of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci received their inspiration from him. Jesus wrote no poetry but Dante, Milton, and scores of the world's greatest poets were inspired by him. Jesus composed no music still Haydn, Handel, Beethoven, Bach, and Mendelssohn reached their highest perfection of melody in the hymns, symphonies, and oratorios they composed in his praise. Every sphere of human greatness has been enriched by this humble Carpenter of Nazareth.

His unique contribution to humanity is the salvation of the soul! Philosophy could not accomplish that. Nor art. Nor literature. Nor music. Only Jesus Christ can break the enslaving chains of sin. He alone can speak peace to the human heart, strengthen the weak, and give life to those who are spiritually dead."

David E. Leininger, Collected Sermons,
9.     Doubt

This is a good sermon opener:

In the semantics of the church, doubt has been a negative word. It is rarely used in a favorable way. Faith, not doubt, is the great word of the church. As I stand here every Sunday morning and look into your up-lifted faces, you look so proper, so content, so believing. You seem to be so certain, so full of faith, and so free of doubt.

But, I have a suspicion that the way you look is not the way you are. Beneath the skins of many of you there is planted the seed of honest doubt. Perhaps you do not share these feelings with anyone; but your doubts are there, and they are real. Your worship does not express your doubts, uncertainties, and skepticism. In facing this situation, all of us at times cry out with the man in the Gospel, "Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief." This capacity to doubt can often lead to some of life's most profound questions.

Such was the case with John the Baptizer. His question -"Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?"- grew not out of his uncertainty, but out of his doubt. John the Baptizer had heard about the words and deeds of Jesus, but what he had heard did not square with his expectation of the Messiah.

After all, Jesus was born not to royalty, but to a peasant woman. He functioned not as a military ruler, but as a servant. He came not as a judge, but as a forgiving redeemer. He did not bring heavenly condemnation; he brought divine love. He did not associate with the religious establishment, but he went from village to village associating with the rubbish heap of humanity. He spent his time and energy with the least and the lost. He was most concerned with the powerless: the blind and the lame, the lepers and the deaf, and the poor and the out-cast. And Jesus dared to teach that the weak occupied the most important place in the Kingdom of God.

John the Baptizer became confused about the way in which Jesus acted out his messiahship. He had doubts about the validity of his contemporary, Jesus of Nazareth. His skepticism caused him to send one of his buddies to Jesus with the question: "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" Like others in the New Testament, John the Baptizer was not positive. Oh, to be sure, there were fleeting moments of recognition. Mary thought Jesus was a gardener. Those on the road to Emmaus never did recognize him. Even his closest disciples were not certain if he was or was not the true Messiah.

That John the Baptizer had doubts about the messiahship of Jesus is revealed in his question: "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?" His question is not clear, either in what is being asked or why. But like all good questions, it shoves the reader into deeper regions of thought.

Joe E. Pennell Jr., From Anticipation to Transfiguration, CSS Publishing Company, 23-24.
10.  It Doesn't Get Any Better

In 1964 my boyhood home burned. We were on our way to spend Christmas with my mother and father, and the word reached us that the flames had engulfed most of the home, although the structure was standing. When we arrived at Texarkana, it was late in the afternoon, and the December sun was already toward the horizon. I entered the house with a cousin to inspect the damage and became aware of the fact that it was difficult to see. I said to her, "I think I shall wait and come back in the morning, when the light will be better." I shall never forget her reply: "Bill," she said, "it doesn't get any better!" At first I did not know what she meant; only later I realized that the fire had brought to the inside panes of the windows a kind of smoke and resin film which very effectively shut out most of the light, even when the sun was shining brightly.

Those words have been burned into my consciousness ever since...
From Fr. Tony Kadavil's Collection:

1: Unfinished Play: Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American writer. When he died in 1864 he had on his desk the outline of a play he never got a chance to finish. The play centered around a person who never appeared on stage. Everyone talked about him. Everyone dreamed about him. Everyone waited for his arrival. But he never came. All kinds of minor characters described him. They told everybody what he would do. But the main character never appeared. –The Old Testament is something like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s play. It too ended without the main character’s putting in an appearance. Everyone talked about the Messiah, everyone awaited his arrival. But he never came in the Old Testament period. In today’s reading, we hear Isaiah describing what the Messiah would do by bringing salvation to all mankind. Today’s Gospel tells us that when the real Messiah came, even the last prophet and the Messiah’s herald, John the Baptist, could not believe that he was the expected Messiah. (Mark Link S. J. in Sunday Homilies)  

2: Gaudete Sunday smile: A number of years ago, a young college student was working as an intern at his college’s Museum of Natural History. One day while working at the cash register in the gift shop, he saw an elderly couple come in with a little girl in a wheelchair. As he looked more closely at this girl, he saw that she was kind of perched on her chair. The student realized that she had no arms or legs, just a head, neck and torso. She was wearing a little white dress with red polka dots. As the couple wheeled her up to the checkout counter, he turned his head toward the girl and gave her a wink. Meanwhile, he took the money from her grandparents and looked back at the girl, who was giving him the cutest and the largest smile he had ever seen. All of a sudden her handicap was gone, and all that the college student saw was this beautiful girl, whose smile just melted him and almost instantly gave him a completely new sense of what life is all about. She took him from being an unhappy college student and brought him into her world - a world of smiles, love and warmth. With the lighting of the third rose candle of the Advent Wreath among the purple candles and the priest’s wearing the rose vestments, we are reminded that we are called to live with joy in our world of sorrows and pain. (Fr. James Farfaglia)  

3:  Michael Jordan playing with country kids? One evening at the country park, a group of teenage boys was playing basketball. A tall, bald, African-American man strolled up. The man watched for a few minutes, then asked if he might play with them. He made three point jump shots and lay-ups and hooks with the ease of a pro. The stranger played for about fifteen minutes with the teenagers, gave them some pointers, thanked them for letting him play, and disappeared. The stranger didn't tell the teenagers his name. They'd seen Michael Jordan on TV, and he looked like him. But could this stranger who came to a remote village actually be Michael Jordan? In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist asks the same kind of question about Jesus. Could this gentle Jesus with a band of fishermen as his disciples be the real Messiah, the long awaited Anointed One of God, while the Messiah he heralded was a firebrand?