May Faith Be As Light
by Steven G. Oetjen
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?" Jesus said to them in reply, "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. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me."
As they were going off, 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; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."
"Lord Jesus Christ, abide with us, / Now that the sun has run its course; / Let hope not be obscured by night. / But may faith's darkness be as light." This is the first verse of a hymn that is sometimes sung during Vespers, the liturgical prayer that takes place in the evening when the sun is setting.
We know that night is a dangerous time physically. For example, violent crimes are more likely to occur at night rather than in broad daylight. But we also go through spiritual darkness at times, sometimes even for extended periods of time. The first verse of this hymn acknowledges that such spiritual darkness carries with it the danger that our hope may be obscured. We can be tempted to fall into discouragement, and even despair. So, the hymn expresses the desire that in the darkness of such spiritual nighttime, faith may be as a light. By faith, we recognize that the Lord Jesus still abides with us, even when we cannot see him in the darkness.
In this Sunday's Gospel from the 11th chapter of Matthew, we find St. John the Baptist in the evening of his life. Recall last week when we saw him in his "prime" in Chapter 3. Huge crowds of people from Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to see him in the desert. He was preaching boldly and baptizing. He was prophesying about the one mightier than he who had his winnowing fan in his hand, coming to clear his threshing floor. Now, we see a different picture. John the Baptist has been arrested by King Herod. This is probably not how he expected things to turn out. From the darkness of prison cell, questions begin to arise in his mind. So, he tells his disciples to go to Jesus and ask, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?"
God has given John both faith and the gift of prophecy. But even John the Baptist's understanding needed to be deepened and his faith purified. It's not that his prophecies were wrong, but they were going to be fulfilled in a way that John himself had not envisioned. This last segment of his life, as he sits in his dark prison cell and awaits his beheading at Herod's order, is just as important as the earlier segment of his life. And it is just as much a part of his mission. He was the forerunner of Christ in life and in preaching. He would also be the forerunner of Christ in his passion and death.
This "evening" of his life is important both for his mission and for him personally. Father Simeon Leiva-Merikakis points out that the question John the Baptist asks is in the first person plural ("Should we look for another?"), and John is included in that "we." Before his arrest, John had drawn many disciples to follow him. But his mission was ultimately not for those people to be his own disciples; it was for them to find and follow Christ. As he said elsewhere, "He must increase, I must decrease." By including himself in that "we," John is reducing himself to the rank of "fellow disciple" of Christ. No longer surrounded by large crowds, no longer the master of many disciples, he fades into the background, the obscurity of his dark prison cell. He is not the one in control, because he is not the Messiah. He does not determine what Jesus' mission is. John already prophesied it; now Jesus carries it out. He fades into the background so that Christ can increase. And in doing so his own faith is purified.
Those John sent to Jesus get to hear the answer from Our Lord's own mouth, "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. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me."
The answer is clear. Yes, this is the Christ. He abides with us now, and his work is being accomplished. Even from the darkness of his prison cell, John may now rejoice in the light of faith. The same good news is preached to us, and the same joy can be ours. Even in darkness, may faith be as light.