Finding the Perfect Gift – A Reflection on the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent

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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  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)
  4. 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” [1].

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.


11 Replies to “Finding the Perfect Gift – A Reflection on the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent”

  1. Yes, the take of the Fathers that you mention is ultimately more consoling and treats John’s question as more rhetorical than as a puzzled inquiry. Thanks for this addition to the post!

  2. The points about Jesus not being the type of Messiah that people expected are good. But I too never thought that those points would apply to John the Baptist.

    Reading the passages about John the Baptist, I’ve never discerned any form of doubt or discouragement or being puzzled, but always read him to understand God’s plan, having received the grace of the Holy Spirit while still in the womb at the Visitation. This understanding is indicated when John uses the curious phrase “Lamb of God.” Lambs are not wrathful, lambs are meek, lambs are fodder for sacrifice. Rather, he understood that the Messiah would be the Suffering Servant and Passover Lamb, and not a wrathful military ruler as most others expected. However, although we, having the benefit of hindsight, now understand what is meant by “Lamb of God,” John’s followers most certainly would have been puzzled by it (just as the Apostles must have been puzzled by Jesus saying to “take up the cross”).

    John sends his followers to ask Jesus the question not because he needs to know the answer, but because his followers need to know the answer. After all, John had already told them that he was NOT the Messiah and they had heard the reports of miracles by Jesus, so why were they still John’s disciples and not disciples of Jesus, as they should have been?? So John goes and sends them so they can hear it from Jesus directly.

    At least, that’s how I’ve always read it. (And thank you Reginaldus, having not read the views of the Fathers on the subject, I am comforted to know that that is consistent with their reading.)

    1. I understand that it is less pleasant that John the Baptist would have any doubt. However this alternative point of view, which you are most free to reject is based on some of the following considerations.

      1. JB asks the question through his disciples. It may be a rhetorical device on his part but this is not a necessary conclusion.
      2. Jesus answers JB. Here too it may all be a rhetorical device by Matthew or Jesus but again this is not the necessary or even obvious meaning. Normally one does not presuppose that a question is merely rhetorical but assumes it is asked plainly as a genuine inquiry.
      3. This is not the only place in Scripture where JB is incorrect about something and Jesus sets the record Straight. JB indicates that he is not Elijah (John 1:21) but Jesus says he is Elijah (Mk 9:13; Matt 11:14).
      4. JBs vision of the Messiah is anything but lamblike in last weeks Gospel (cf Luke 3) even though he called Jesus the Lamb. The seeming contradiction of John’s vision is in the Scripture, Bender, and I am not sure what to do about it except to hold them in tension and permit the dissonant texts to indicate some plurality in John’s own understanding, but this is only a guess.
      4. That Biblical heroes struggle with their faith and understanding God’s ways is a consistent theme almost to a man. The Scriptures never present the Biblical heroes without chinks in their armor, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Peter, all the apostles. Even Mother Mary struggled to understand why Jesus would have left them at age 12 and stayed in the temple. She ponders and considers his teachings. None of these qualities of the Biblical saints need threaten their sanctity and their ultimate resolution of these struggles. Some of the struggles involve sin, others do not, as in the case of Mary and likely John here. But God’s ways are often difficult to understand and may cause bewilderment, and even discouragement to the holy ones. Consider the angst of ELijah and most of the prophets.
      5. The positon on JB may be offensive to pious ears but it need not be. Many of the Bibilcal heroes are described in far worse situatons than mere discouragement: Abram runs off to Egpyt, pimps his wife, sleeps with his lave girl and doubts God, yet is a paragon of faith for he grows, Moses murders, and even years later speaks rashly, offends God somehow and is refused entry to the Promised Land, David murders, commits adultery and struggles over a heir to the end, Elijah runs off and depairs that God has any other followers in all Israel, Peter has a tendency to be rash and jealous. Even after the tender discussion with Jesus he seems resentful that John might not have to suffer. Paul later rebukes him for teaching rightly but living wrongly insofar as Gentiles go.
      6. Hence this position that takes a straight-forward reading of the text, i.e. John is actually asking this question not using it for a rhetorical device to get his disciples thinking, is rooted in a biblical tradition regarding our heroes.
      7. Of course it is only one point of view and one is free to reject it.
      8. The view of the Fathers is also a common one, perhaps most common, and their witness to it is significant. However, one need not dogmatize the Fathers in this regard in that one is required, once they or even some of them, have spoken on a text no other interpretations are possible.
      9. Finally, I am unware of any doctrinal teaching of the Church that is threatened by such an interpretation of John’s questions. From a homiletic point of view, this view of John’s possible struggle is a rich theme to explore. It seems harmless and is also rooted in a consistent Biblical tradition.

      Of Course you and others are free to reject all this. But my only wish here is to establish a basis for the viewpoint and show that it is more than a whimsical thing from my study of it and does not need to be considered offensive or without basis. One surely need not say JB doubted as some more strongly do, but rather that he exhibits some discouragement or simply has a struggle to understand the Lord’s ways. At any rate take it or leave it. It seems you and Reginald would rather leave it. Which is fine.

      1. Well, my “take it or leave it” was also very sincere. I am entirely at ease with the fact that some, perhaps many will not find this point of view compelling for any number of reasons and that really is fine. I was checking some of my own sources just to be clear on the text. My own seminary notes contained references now lost but describe this point of view. The Jerome Biblical Commentary also catalogues the various views and favors the “sincere question” apporach I have presented. William Barclay’s commentary also has an interesting discussion of the various views but I am not clear what he favors. The Catholic Study Bible (RSV version) is silent on the matter. At any rate it is a fascinating discussion. I like this kind of stuff. One other additional line in the passage that is interesting in this regard is the line, “Blessed is the one who is not scandalized in me.” Here too, we can ask, does this line refer to JB? If so, is it a corrective tone, or a praising tone, indicating that JB has no problem. Anyway fascinating.

        You did not tell me what you thought of the “Elijah” question and JB. I am thinking of blogging on it later this week so I’d be interested.

        I’ll have to check out the article you wrote and recommended to Bender.


  3. Nice refection of what is perfect. Only God is perfect, so only He can be the perfect gift. You, Msgr Pope say that ‘Grace and Mercy,’ are the perfect gift. I would likt to make it a trinitarian gift and include ‘Salvation.’ God’s mercy in Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue is like the Ocean Pacific, and our sin is like a single drop of ink into the vast ocean. It is wiped out. Salvation is the basis of Grace and Mercy. The Perfect Gift, is the Gift, that even Santa will bend his knee to adore in His Manger.

    When John the Baptist asked Jesus through his discipels: “Are you the one?” Jesus’s answer correlated with Isaiah 35:1-6, 10. There are over 100 passages of scripture in the Old Testiment which Jesus would have fullfilled that John could relate to once Jesus revealed to him, “Yes, He is the Chosen One!’ All prophesies point to Jesus. Some of those prophesies are; Zacariah Chptr. 53; Psalm 22:1, 7-8, 18; Psalm 31:5; Isaiah 53:12; Amos 8:9.

    Some have asked: “Why did Jesus need to be baptized if He was Sinless?” Pope Benedict the XVIth (Joseph Ratzinger) in his book, “Jesus of Nazarath.” explains (p. 18): “The novelty is that Jesus asked to be baptized. (Matt 3:14). He inauurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners (in anticipation of the cross). Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. The baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity….Jesus uses the word ‘baptism’ to refer to his death (Mk 10:38; Lk 12:50).” In baptism, the sins are immersed or plunged into the living waters, and are bathed, cleansed, and washed away. This is why John the Baptist exclaimed: (Jn 1:29). “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

  4. it’s so easy, safe and comforting to discount any evidence of concupiscent human nature regarding saints. It wasn’t until recently I have come across many articles about errors saints initially fell into. Apparently, Thomas Aquinas, at some point, rejected the the theology of the Immaculate Conception. Msgr Pope did a great article regarding the nature of St. Nicholas. I can’t find the article now or remember which blog, but there was a fascinating post on New Advent last week whether St. Joseph was going to break his betrothal to Mary based on her out of wedlock pregnancy or whether it was humility in his self regard of unworthiness to be the foster father of God. There is a great interview this week on EWTN Bookmark with Fr. Thomas McDermott the author of a new book about St. Catherine of Sienna which mentions some of the errors she fell into and had to correct in her spiritual growth.

    It wasn’t until after reading these articles that it occurred to me I am guilty of deifying many saints by automatically forgetting their humanity and vulnerability to concupiscence like us. Hagiography that dismisses or hides saints’ concupiscence does us a great disservice. Revisiting the idea that saints suffered from concupiscence just like us no matter how much grace they received has done me a great good and narrowed a great uncrossable chasm. What a renewed sense of hope and joy this has provided me, especially regarding personal forgiveness and patience for my own faults and shortcomings.

    ‘O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!

  5. Msgr. I don’t understand why Christ used the qualifier “among those born of women” instead of just saying “of all mankind”. Can there be others in heaven (not angels) not born of women? Also, if the least in heaven (at the time of Jesus Christ on earth) is greater than John the Baptist then was Christ saying it was impossible for anyone to get to heaven (at that time) because no one at that time was greater than John the Baptist? I believe
    this is what He meant and that is the reason why He died so it would no longer be impossible for all of us to have a chance to get into heaven.

  6. At any rate it is a fascinating discussion

    Amen. Sometimes being like “Israel” (wrestling with God) is a good thing. Going back and forth, considering all perspectives, is essential in the search for truth that is this journey called faith.

  7. What strikes me about Jesus’ response is that he points to people being made whole as evidence that He is the Messiah. A few weeks ago, we read from Luke 13:14 in which Jesus seems to expect that the synagogue leader should see God acting when Jesus heals a woman, and Jesus seems angry that he does not see this. That Jesus’ points to His healing activity as evidence of God’s action is also evident in Mark 3:23-30, and I would argue evident throughout the Gospels.
    As far as sinners are concerned, it seems from Jesus’ parables (The Prodigal Son, The Woman Sweeping, come to mind) that what Jesus wants most is their conversion, i.e. to be put on the path to wholeness. And this is the attitude He would like us to have; ‘blessed are the merciful’. Being merciful seems more nurturing to growth than punishment.
    This acting and desiring for people to become whole seems to me to be very consonant with the attitude the Creator would have towards His creatures, and in this reading as well as in many others Jesus speaks and acts in ways that strongly point to this being the way He thinks of the Father.
    This wholeness comes about by sharing in the Creator’s life, and thus the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist, because wholeness for a human being is more than physical health.

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