I’d like all of us to reflect on the situation we find in today’s gospel. John the Baptist is in prison. He ended up behind bars because he was bold enough to tell King Herod he was living in a sinful marriage, married to his brother’s wife. John found himself at the mercy of a fickle king and a vengeful queen. John may have felt his life and his mission were falling apart; things weren’t going as he had hoped.
John was human like the rest of us. He liked having a following, crowds who listened to his every word. He was happy with all those people who repented and were baptized. He was proud of his band of disciples. John knew his mission was to prepare the way of the one who would come after him – he knew he was never meant to be the ‘main attraction’. But being human it wasn’t easy for him to let go of his popularity, his recognition as a prophet. Even though he sent his own disciples to Jesus, it probably pained him to see them go.
Scholars have different opinions as to whether John’s question “are you He Who is to come or should we look for another?” was to help his disciples to follow Jesus more closely or whether it was for his own personal assurance – have I been on the right track? John’s preaching was rather severe, pretty black and white. Jesus was more nuanced, gentler. Did John imagine Jesus was watering down the call for repentance, the call for greater fidelity to God? In those long days and frightful nights in prison, uncertain of his own future did John wonder ‘did I do the right thing? did I say the right words?’ Was John troubled by second guessing his life’s work?
Jesus’ answer to John disciples, an answer Jesus meant John to hear, points to the very works Jesus was doing. Works that point to the very intimate presence of God in the lives of the people, works Isaiah described to the beaten, discouraged people of his times to prove to them ‘ here is your God’. “the eyes of the blind shall be open, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like the deer, the tongues of the speechless sing for joy.” Jesus message to John was, John you are not a failure, John you did the right thing.
I think there can be times in all our lives when we can relate to the feelings of doubt and bewilderment John endured in his prison cell. It’s often been called a mid-life crisis. When we look at how we’ve lived our lives, when we think of the decisions we’ve made or failed to make, when we think back on the unfulfilled dreams we’ve had for ourselves or for others, when we dreamed dreams that didn’t come true, we can often wonder and worry ‘have I wasted my life? Has it been worthwhile?’
How many of you who are grandparents worry about un-baptized grandchildren who are denied any contact with a faith that has been in the family for countless generations? How many of you are hurt because sons and daughters no longer live a faith life you tried so hard to pass on to them? Recently I was at a funeral in a Baptist church. The minister used the example of a relay race in which the baton of the faith is passed on from generation to generation and wondered, from his own pastoral experience, how often that baton is dropped by this generation and worried that it may never be picked up again.
These are John the Baptist times of our lives. I’ve mentioned before, we are all mistake making beings, no one bats 1000. We are all good people trying to do the best we can. In our times of doubt we should look to the good we’ve done, the love we’ve shown. We are being unfair to ourselves when we burden ourselves with the responsibility for the decisions other people have made in their lives.
Are you the one who is to come or should be look for another? Jesus’ reply was to point to the signs of God’s presence in the lives of the people, signs of love and healing and growth. When in our own way we ask the question, “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another”? Did I do the right things, was I on the right track, did I make the right decision? I think He would have us be honest about the good we’ve done, the love we’ve shown, the healing we’ve brought about. I think He would encourage us to see the good and the generosity and the love in the lives of those who did not turn out as we would wished them to and appreciate the fact that they are on their own journey to God, a journey far different than our own, but a journey none the less.
As we continue to celebrate this Mass with the fearful, doubtful John the Baptist before us, we can pray for ourselves and for each other that in our own times of doubt and wonder we be blessed with the conviction, a confidence we did the best we could and leave the rest in hands of God – Who knows us better than we know ourselves and loves us better than we love ourselves.