Today’s Gospel sees a switch away from Mark, to that of John who has more to say about John the Baptist who for good reason is a key figure in the readings for Advent. But key player though he is, he is not the key player. He is a witness to someone else, he is someone people ‘go through’ rather than ‘arrive at’. John of course is sent from God whereas his interrogators are sent from higher authority figures in Jerusalem. But to the question ‘who are you’ he simply says who he is not, which really isn’t very helpful – they can’t simply go back to their religious superiors in Jerusalem and say who this guy isn’t. It’s a bit like a journalist repeatedly asking the same question of a politician and the answer is not forthcoming. But like good journalists, they persist with their questions, trying to pin him down when he says he is not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet. And since he is none of these, why then is he baptising?
John cleverly sidesteps their questions and gives a really unexpected politician’s insight by saying that if they want to know who he is and why he is baptising they have to know the one who is coming after him. They came to resolve the mystery of John but were directed to the mystery beyond John, this Mystery who is already among them, this is Mystery whom they fail to recognise. How now will they report back to suspicious and unforgiving leaders in Jerusalem?
There is an often told story of a monastery which had fallen on hard times, where people no longer came for spiritual refreshment, where they monks no longer talked to one another and where there were no new vocations. Despite his fervent prayers, the distraught abbott did not know what to do. Then one day whilst walking in the woods he came across a rabbi. He asked the rabbi if he could provide him with some direction about how the fortunes of the monastery could be turned around. The rabbi paused, looked deep into the abbott’s eyes and eventually said: ‘One of you is the Messiah’.
The monks were very curious about the encounter and asked the abbott what had taken place. Very slowly he said: ‘One of us is the Messiah’. The monks then began talking to one another, ‘One of us? Which one? Is it Brother Andrew? Or Brother John? Might it even be the abbott?’ Very slowly things began to change in the monastery. The monks began to look for the Messiah in each other and listen to each other’s words for the Messiah’s voice. And soon, younger monks joined, and people returned to the monastery for spiritual solace and direction.
Happy Gaudete Sunday.