Sunday, December 6th, 2020

‘Ioannes in vinculis’: a Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent

‘Now when John had heard in prison the works of Christ: sending two of his disciples he said to him: art thou he that art to come, or look we for another’ (Matthew 11, 2-3)

Was there ever a darker prison than that of St John the Baptist?—On the surface, it may not have seemed like his imprisonment had much to do with being the forerunner of the Messiah; he was the victim of the injured vanity of Herodias more than anything. And yet, the eyes of faith see more. Christ the Word is the author and sanctifier of matrimony; so of course St John is a martyr for Christ.

And yet still, his was a dark prison because there was his Master—your disciples, John, were becoming his, as was only right.—But there was your Master, and there would be no rescue for you. And as your life drained out onto the floor of Herod’s dungeon while the powers of the world caroused upstairs, your prophecy could not have been any more true—Illum oportet crescere me autem minui.[1] And you wrote that motto of the Christian life upon the pages of history with your blood. Oh holy St John!

But the prophecy is fulfilled even to this hour: for how often do the Catholic people think of him? He goes on decreasing, it would seem.

Perhaps we should think like this. Two days from now we will commemorate the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin. John is the forerunner; and the Immaculate Conception is a forerunning grace—a prevenient grace, as the language of theology puts it. And we know there is a link between St John and the Immaculate Conception, because it was at the sound of Mary’s greeting that John leaped in the womb of Elizabeth.[2] Thus, not out of the question that we should think of St John the Baptist in the same moment with think, for instance, of St Bernadette; or St Catherine Laboré. All of them were witnesses to the grace of the Immaculate Conception, that singular grace that fills every corner of salvation history.

Today’s Gospel is one of questions; and even though they were not speaking to one another directly, we are meant to eavesdrop on the discussion between disciple and Master; between the forerunner and his Christ. St John asks the question of Advent: Tu es qui venturus es, an alium expectamus? Can there be a more important question? And every soul which has encountered Christ since that day has asked the same one.

But the Incarnate Word responds with more questions (and we should note, with a certain rhetorical edge.) Quid existis in desertum videre? Arundinem vento agitatam? Hominem molibus vestitum? Prophetam? No, the people knew exactly what they were looking for—and they knew that Christ knew. There is no deceiving or evading God.

As for St John, he received the answer to his question. The works of Christ—the healings, resurrections, preaching—spoke for themselves to St John. And with psychological and spiritual perspicacity, our Blessed Lord gives John just the answer he required: beatus est qui non fuerit scandalizatus in me. Blessed the one who is not hindered by me; who is not turned aside from his good purpose by me; who does not hesitate to make the obvious assent to believe and serve and love me.

It was what St John was made for. Christ sanctified him through the Immaculate Heart; thus he knew his vocation was to decrease and Christ increased; when at last he was able to give his faithful witness in that dark prison. And thus St John became, yes, a martyr for Christ and the sanctity of marriage; but also of the nature of the Church, as St Paul would later write:

For no man ever hateth his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the Church: because we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. ‘For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh.’ This is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the Church.[3]

Little wonder why in the Roman Rite St John appears in three of the four Advent Gospels. Little wonder why our Lord tells us that there is no greater man born of woman than St John the Baptist.[4] 

God is wonderful in his saints.[5] As for us, from our own chains and in our own hour of witness, we need to hear the word spoken to St John. The Immaculate One has her work to do in us as she did with St John. In all times and in all places and in all events, God grant that we might not be scandalized by our Blessed Lord. And we never will be, if the grace of the Immaculate One is ever before us.



{Art Credit: Juan Fernández de Navarette (1526-1579), John the Baptist in Prison (c 1565-1560); the Hermitage Museum}

[1] John 3, 30.

[2] Luke 1, 41.

[3] Ephesians 5, 29-32. Internal reference to Genesis 2, 24.

[4] Matthew 11, 11.

[5] Psalm 67, 36: ‘Mirabilis Deus in sanctis suis.’  

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