Today’s gospel reading (Matthew 11. 2–11) is a stark contrast to the lyricism of the Mass’s first reading (Isaiah 35. 1–6, 10) and the explosion of colour and sound accompanying our celebration of Gaudete Sunday. John the Baptist is in prison, soon to be executed at the whim of a tyrant. He has heard about Jesus, but isn’t sure he is the One he, and all Israel, is longing for; so he sends some of his followers to question him. Jesus sends back an answer linking himself to Isaiah’s prophesy, then goes on to discuss John in terms some of us may find surprising.
We tend to think of John the Baptist as a ‘wild man,’ living on the edge of the desert, austere to the point of emaciation. He is obsessed with the coming of the Messaiah — joyful, fierce, capable of spell-binding utterance and blistering honesty, a man of contradictions. Herod didn’t know what to make of John yet liked to listen to him. The scribes and pharisees whom John called a ‘brood of vipers’ were also keen to hear him speak. Clearly, there was something irresistibly attractive about him — a strength, a clarity of purpose, on which others could rely, however uncomfortable it might prove at times. Yet Jesus’ first words about John are enigmatic. ‘What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed shaken by the wind?’ The words are so unexpected that the irony is not immediately apparent. A reed looks fragile as it trembles in the wind, but who would have thought of John as fragile? Then there is that allusion to the garment of camel-hair and the contrast with the fine clothes worn in a palace. Finally, Jesus gets to the point: John is a prophet and, as such, a strong man, dressed in the garments of salvation, a challenge to our way of thinking and acting, just as Jesus himself is a challenge to us.
Why did Jesus play with his audience in that way? A scripture scholar would probably wish to explain literary forms and semitic usages, but I think a much simpler explanation may suffice. Jesus wants his hearers to think. What was it about John that drew them to him? What was it about John that Jesus wanted his own disciples to emulate?
Let’s go back, for a moment, to the reed image. Reeds are found in marshy areas, in marginal lands. They have hollow stems, making them good conductors of sounds or liquids, and they can be used to manufacture almost anything from a basket to a roof. They are, in fact, immensely tough, amazing for all their seeming ordinariness. Without trying to stretch the analogy too far, we can say that John, too, was tough, living on the margins of society and with so little self-importance that he desired to grow less that Christ might grow greater, a human example of the amazing-in-ordinary. He was shaped by the Word of God to be his instrument. He proclaimed the demands of righteousness to all who would listen, showing no fear. He gave a baptism of repentance to those prepared to humble themselves, and baptized Jesus himself at the beginning of his public ministry. He did all this without fuss or fanfare, content to let Christ be all in all, ultimately laying down his life for him.
In a moment of exquisite tenderness, Jesus recognizes John’s stature and allows us to see how much he loved him. John was both forerunner and follower, the greatest among those yet born of women, a witness to truth and justice. We know that but don’t often think about the love Jesus had for John, nor do we frequently reflect on the dynamic between them. Perhaps we should do so more often, because if we could understand the relationship between them, we should understand better what it means to be a disciple and how to prepare for the coming of Christ. For many, John remains a little distant, a little severe, but if we think about the role he played in Jesus’ life, I think he becomes the warm and attractive figure he undoubtedly was, the ‘one joy man’ beloved of monks and nuns. The respect Jesus and John had for each other is telling. John, we could say, was necessary to Jesus in the accomplishment of his mission. That is a huge claim, and must be followed by an equally huge question. Are we also necessary? We might usefully ponder that as we enter the third week of Advent.