The Gospel today is best seen in three stages as John the Baptist and we with him are encouraged to make a journey from puzzlement, through purification to perfection. Here is a Gospel that encourages us to find the perfect gift.
1. Puzzlement – John the Baptist is discouraged, or so it seems if we interpret this text correctly. John had been looking for a Messiah who would root out injustice, crush the wicked, destroy the oppressors and exalt the poor and the oppressed. Recall his words from last week’s gospel:
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Mat 3:10-12)
With delight John had pointed out Christ when he came: Look there is the Lamb of God! (John 1:29). With humble hesitation he had baptized the one who would change everything. He encouraged his disciples to follow after the one who is mightier than I saying,
A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less. (Jn 3:28-30)
Yet now John is in prison! Placed there by a tyrant, an oppressor. The very sort of man John was sure that Messiah would cut down and cast into fire. Where was the hoped for deliverance? Where was the exultation of the lowly and casting down of the mighty? Where was the axe being laid to the root?
So John was discouraged, or so it would seem. And thus we see the very one who had announced Jesus, and pointed him out when he came, sending his disciples to Jesus with a question:
Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?
Now John was not wholly baseless in his expectation of a wrathful coming of the Messiah. There are many texts that spoke of it. For example here are three:
- Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come!…Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it….I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger. (Is 13:6-10)
- Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken asunder by him. (Nahum 1:6)
- But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Mal 3:2)
So John had worked hard to call people to repentance to get them ready for the great and terrible day of the Lord. John’s discouragement and puzzlement are thus understandable as Jesus does not slay the wicked, but instead goes about healing and preaching and, istead of slaying the wicked he is enduring scorn and ridicule from those in power.
And we can see, John’s notions, while understandable, are in need of some purification.
2. Purification – Jesus gives an answer to those sent by John that draws from a different tradition of Messiah texts than what John had emphasized. The Old Testament texts that spoke of the Messiah were complicated and at times hard to interpret. While some texts spoke of his wrath toward the wicked and unjust, others spoke of his healing and mercy. The differences in the description of the Messiah had a lot to do with context, audience and also the possibility that the Messiah’s ministry might be accomplished in stages. Hence, while John the Baptist is not wrong in his application of the wrathful and vindicating texts to the Messiah, the New Testament tradition came to understand such texts more of the Messiah’s second coming than of his first.
Jesus thus gives the following answer to those sent by John:
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.
In this answer, Jesus is stitching together many quotes and prophecies about the Messiah, mostly from Isaiah. For example consider the following:
- In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 29:18-19)
- The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn ( Is 61:1-3)
- The dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades thou wilt let it fall. (Is 26:19)
- Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. (Is 35:5-6)
Thus, John and all of us, thus need to purify our sense of what is best for God to do. Jesus says in today’s Gospel to those who are disappointed in his lack of wrathful vengeance: And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.
It is essential to accept Jesus teaching here. This not only because we better conform to scriptural tradition but also, because rejoicing in any other gift than grace and mercy is very dangerous. Notice, John was hoping for a wrathful punishment to be inflicted on the proud and all sinful oppressors. We too can fall into the trap of wishing this upon individuals or even whole segments of the world. But it is a very dangerous thing to call down God’s wrath upon sinners, since, last time I checked, none of us are outside the category “sinner.”
Here then is the necessary purification in our thinking: God’s greatest gift is not the crushing of our enemies. God’s greatest gift is His Son Jesus. Further, it is not Jesus’ wrath that is his greatest gift, it is his grace and mercy. Without Jesus and boatloads of his grace and mercy we don’t stand a chance. Even John the Baptist of who Christ says, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist, even he needs lots of grace and mercy as we shall see.
3. Perfection – And thus we are left with the directive by the Lord to find the perfect gift. And Jesus announces this perfect gift by first describing the best that the world can do. And what was that best accomplishment of the world? Let’s read:
Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.
And thus John the Baptist was the pinnacle. The best that this world has produced. But pay attention to what the Lord says next:
yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Do you see what grace and mercy can do? Do you see that they surpass any worldly excellence? For the world can produce only human and worldly excellence. But Grace and Mercy produce heavenly excellence and make us like unto God. If you seek the perfect gift this Christmas, look to Jesus, for he alone can bestow the grace and mercy that we desperately need. If even the holy John the Baptist was in need, how much more you and I. Grace and mercy far excel any thing we can ask or imagine. I have quoted before the vision of St. Catherine wherein she describes a glorified soul in heaven:
It was so beautiful that she could not look on it; the brightness of that soul dazzled her. Blessed Raymond, her confessor, asked her to describe to him, as far as she was able, the beauty of the soul she had seen. St. Catherine thought of the sweet light of that morning, and of the beautiful colors of the rainbow, but that soul was far more beautiful. She remembered the dazzling beams of the noonday sun, but the light which beamed from that soul was far brighter. She thought of the pure whiteness of the lily and of the fresh snow, but that is only an earthly whiteness. The soul she had seen was bright with the whiteness of Heaven, such as there is not to be found on earth. ” My father,” she answered. “I cannot find anything in this world that can give you the smallest idea of what I have seen. Oh, if you could but see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace, you would sacrifice your life a thousand times for its salvation. I asked the angel who was with me what had made that soul so beautiful, and he answered me, “It is the image and likeness of God in that soul, and the Divine Grace which made it so beautiful” .
Ah yes, the perfect gift. And God wants to get us ready for it. A day of strict justice is on the way which John envisioned. But until that time it has pleased God to offer us the perfect gift of his Son, who by his grace and mercy will prepare us for that day.
Do you want to find the perfect gift this Christmas? Then look for Jesus. Do you want to give the perfect gift to God? Then give yourself to Jesus. To you want to give the perfect gift for others? Then bring them to Jesus, bring them to Mass. Jesus awaits us in prayer, in the liturgy, in his Word proclaimed, in the sacraments. Jesus is the perfect gift.
The destruction of our enemies is not the perfect gift. Their conversion and salvation is. The destruction of sinners is not the perfect gift, their conversion and salvation is.
Find the perfect gift this Christmas, find Jesus. Give the perfect gift this Christmas, give Jesus. Give Jesus the perfect gift this Christmas, give him the give of your very self. The perfect gift. http://findtheperfectgift.org/