3rd Sunday Advent A
Sunday 11th December 2022
The Gospel Paraphrased
There are many fine translations of the Gospels readily available. This paraphrase is not meant to replace them. Rather the intention here is to offer a more contemporary rendering so that you can imaginatively translate the Gospel in your own situation.
This Sunday's Gospel Paraphrased
When John was in prison, he heard about the works of Christ and sent two of his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is coming, or should we be looking to someone else?’ Jesus answered them saying, ‘Go and reveal to John what you have heard and seen: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.’
As they were departing, Jesus probed the crowds concerning John, ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the breeze? What did you go out to see? A man dressed in designer clothing? Those who dress in designer clothes are to be found in places of power. So what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, and I’m telling you, one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it was written, “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, to prepare the way before you.” I tell you, in all truth, among all born of woman, no one greater than John the Baptist has arisen but the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.’
The Psalms are the ancient prayers of the Jewish people, here paraphrased into contemporary language.
This Sunday's Psalm
God is the one who always keeps faith,
who is close when we are overwhelmed.
God feeds those who hunger,
frees those held captive.
God opens the eyes of the blind,
lifts the broken-hearted,
protects the asylum-seeker,
embraces the weak and marginalised.
God loves the just
but upsets the plans of the wicked.
God’s love presides at all times,
our God, from age to age.
Words cannot contain our desire for God but they help direct our minds and hearts towards God's love and express our needs.
This Sunday's Prayer
Loving God, the Kingdom you are offering to me goes far beyond any ideas or images I might have. Keep my mind and heart open to the surprising ways you may enter my life. Let me see Jesus, in my care of the weak and helpless and may your Spirit sustain me in times of challenge and darkness.
The Commentaries Summarised
As a Church we are in a web of wisdom that comes to us both from tradition and contemporary writers. This section offers a summary of some commentaries on the Gospel. Also below is a list of the books and articles that have been consulted in compiling this Sunday's "Pray As You Can" and which could be used for further reading.
This Sunday's Commentary
This reading comes at a significant point in the Gospel of Matthew. Chapters 8 and 9 consist of a number of miracles in which Jesus reveals the saving, compassionate love of God towards a wide range of suffering people: the sick, the dying, the deaf, the dumb and the blind. Then in chapter 10, he commissions the Twelve to go out preaching the Kingdom of God, emulating the acts of saving power that he has done. Now, in this chapter, the actions of Jesus begin to be challenged: are his actions those of the Messiah? Ironically, the first objection to Jesus comes not from those who would be his enemies, but from the one who first recognised Jesus as Messiah. John came, preaching as one would expect a prophet to preach, and witnessed to Jesus, expecting a Messiah who would inaugurate a time of judgement that would sift good from bad and bring punishment on the latter. But Jesus did not. In fact, his acts of loving mercy to the poor and weak confuse John, who then sends his disciples to challenge Jesus.
In his reply, Jesus does not directly answer John’s question. Rather, he invites these disciples to simply see his actions and describe them to John. But the very words Jesus uses echo the prediction of the prophet Isaiah that we have in our first reading. With these, Jesus points to a tradition regarding the Messiah that had been neglected by John. He then leaves it to John to make his own decision about his way of being Messiah. Indeed, in this very manner of answering John’s question, Jesus refuses to be a Messiah who imposes himself upon people. His only chiding comes in the words, ‘Blessed is he who does not lose faith in me.’
After John’s disciples leave, Jesus invites his listeners to reflect on the person of John. His rhetorical questions confirm the instinct of the people who went out into the desert to hear John’s call to repentance. He _was_ the prophet, he _was_ the one preparing the way of the Messiah, he _was_ the greatest born of woman but _more_ is to come. As necessary as repentance is, it can only take people so far. What Jesus had to offer goes beyond even the good that John offered.
Christian conversion is promoted by conversation. This section is a response to and a development on the knowledge gained from the commentary section.
This Sunday's Exposition
We often hear of Advent described as a time of expectancy as though expectancy is a good thing. When we ponder on what Jesus has to say and how he says it in this Sunday’s Gospel, we find that he challenges everyone’s expectations.
Let us begin with the messengers sent by John. They had come from the fiery prophet, who freely and frankly challenged the behaviour of all, including Herod, the highest in the land, and had paid the consequences. Being imprisoned didn’t seem to unsettle John: Jesus’ failure to meet his expectations did. Were these messengers somewhat nervous asking Jesus John’s blunt, even rude questions? Jesus does not respond in kind. He tells them to notice what is happening around them and understand it in the light of the Scriptures. In short, free themselves from John’s expectations of the Messiah, look at the works of God, and become prophets to the prophet.
As for John, he knew the Scriptures, so Jesus used what he knew to enlighten him. John had focussed on certain parts of his tradition – especially the coming of a powerful Judge. Jesus’ words point John to another part of that tradition: a Saviour who comes to save people with gentleness in the midst of their weakness. Ironically, in prison John himself was weak and soon would suffer the extreme helplessness of being murdered. Maybe he now needed the wisdom of that part of the tradition he hadn’t appreciated.
As for the people watching the exchange between Jesus and the messengers, Jesus invites them to reflect on their own expectations and their recent behaviour. Where do they normally expect people of power to be? Why in palaces wearing fine clothes, of course! Then why would they have gone out into the wilderness? To see a prophet, of course! People, ourselves included, are often schizophrenic with regards to expectations. We can take on the expectations of our society: power, wealth, influence are to be strived for at all cost, yet we know that other values, love, service, sacrifice are what truly fulfil the desires, the expectations of our hearts.
As for ourselves, as we journey through this Advent, we are invited to challenge the expectations of our lives: our expectations of God, of success, of how we are to love.
Reflection is an essential element of our growth in Christ. As we reflect over what we have learnt and ponder it in our hearts, we come to recognise the presence of God in our lives.
This Sunday's Reflection
In Samuel van Hoogstraten’s pen and ink wash of St. John the Baptist in Prison we see John, not as he is traditionally portrayed as a stern ascetic, but as a poor, simple prisoner hearing news that has simply astonished him. He looks, not at the disciples recounting Jesus’ answer, but inwardly. Understanding and enlightenment wash across his face. ‘So this is what the salvation of God is really like!’ His faith shifts from a God who gives Law, invites repentance and judges justly to a God who does all that, but much more: to a God who sends a Messiah who comes to weak, suffering people offering a gentle, healing love. This is not a God for whom one has to improve oneself to gain a hearing, but rather a God who comes, placing his arm around one’s shoulder and helping one along the way.
When we study the lives of the saints, we find that when they are young (and foolish even) they are often fiercely ascetic and rigid in their understanding of the practice of faith but as they grow in the life of grace, they are gentled and become more loving. While their self-discipline remains, it is no longer done to better themselves but because it makes them more capable of service. Where in earlier days, they condemned sin because it broke the Law of God, they come to grieve over it because it wrecks such suffering in people’s lives. Their image of God transforms. Where God had once been high and mighty, calling them to serve, he is now recognised more as a shepherd who has offered them the privilege of sharing in the divine search for the lost, the stray and the broken. The journey of John in faith, the journey of the saints is our journey also. Our understanding of the mystery of salvation is faulty. This is not our fault, necessarily. It primarily happens because our faith is so much greater than our capacity to understand. But John the Baptist can be our mentor. Like him, we can allow ourselves to be disillusioned with our expectations, we can question what is happening, we can ponder the reality of our experience and we can discover that God is truly with us, lifting and healing us in the midst of our brokenness.
Looking at art works or movies is a great way to open ourselves to the meaning of the Gospels. Seeing can bypass our preconceived notions, giving us new vistas of enlightenment. With painting or sculpture one needs to sit quietly and absorb the dynamics of the piece. The drama of movies more easily engages us and offers a way to conversation about the Gospel with other members of your family.
This Sunday's Visual Meditation
St John the Baptist in the Prison by Juan Fernández de Navarrete.
Salome Visiting St. John the Baptist in Prison by Francesco Barbieri, called ‘Il Guercino’.
St. John the Baptist in Prison receives Christ’s answer by Samuel van Hoogstraten.
Saint John the Baptist in Prison visited by two Disciples by Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia.
John the Baptist visited by his disciples in prison by Andrea Pisano.
The purpose of mulling meditations is to offer a few ideas that one can mull about while doing other occupations. There are many things we do in our day that do not require our full attention - some things which are largely done on automatic pilot - like driving a car or peeling the potatoes. While we give these our attention, part of our mind is still at work mulling on other things and unless it is given something positive to feed on, we easily feed on negative thoughts. Personally I find mulling time the most likely time for God to get through to me. Because I am not so conscious of myself, God gets through the cracks and opens my heart to look at life differently.
Two practical times for mulling can be when exercising and when driving. Some small preparations for integrating such prayer into these exercises can be helpful.
As you do your preparatory stretches, pray the line of the Psalm "I praise you God for I am wonderfully made!"
Similarly when doing your concluding stretches use the prayer of St Clare "Praised be you, my God, for creating me!"
Have some music that you find helps you turn you mind and heart to God and play that for the first 10 minutes or so of your trip.
This Sunday's Mulling Meditation
As you go through this week, mull on your expectations of the presence of God in your life. Where do you expect to see God at work? What situations challenge your faith? Mull on how you could see God at work in those situations?
In the Letter of James, we are told that the Scriptures are like a mirror in which we can see ourselves. In this type of meditation we take a piece of Scripture, hold it before us and consider what echoes within our heart. These echoes help us to see who we are before God and how we are loved. What usually echoes in us are situations that we are dealing with in our lives. When something strikes us, we do not actively try to solve the situation or work it through. Rather we sit holding it in God's love. The point of such a meditation is to make space within the situation for God's love to be. In 'sitting with' such a situation, painful or sad, we come to recognise the love of God that is at work on our lives. The suggestions for Mirror reflections can also be used for Exercise reflections but wouldn't be advised for Driving Prayer as often some degree of emotion or distraction might rise in such prayer.
This Sunday's Mirror Meditation
Rest in the love of your God.
Our faith should always continue to grow. Ponder on how you understood your faith at earlier times in your life. What were the limitations you had and how did God challenge you to grow?
At this time, where are the places of darkness and confusion in your life and in your faith? Sit with these for some time. Indeed let the darkness grow. Then ask Jesus to show you how the grace and love of God can work in those situations.
Rest in the love of your God.