John the Baptist and the Dark Night of the Soul

A reflection on the Gospel Reading for the Third Sunday in Advent

And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.  And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” (Matthew 11:2-6)

No one should have known Jesus better than John the Baptist. John had, after all, recognized Jesus from his mother’s womb, or at the very least he recognized the voice of the Blessed Virgin. (Luke 1: 41) John and Jesus were cousins. In all likelihood they knew each other as boys. John had recognized Jesus as the Messiah when He came to be baptized. John was there when the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and the voice came from heaven: “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.”

If anyone had an experience with the Lord, it was JB.

Yet there he sits imprisoned by Herod Antipas in the fortress of Machaerus, perched a thousand feet above the Dead Sea. Probably in chains. Not exactly the freewheeling life of the desert and the River Jordan, locust and honey, preaching and baptizing.

I preached this passage to some guys in prison last week. Dare I say it, most of them were there for doing something bad. Having been a criminal defense attorney, I know that most of them will claim they are really innocent. I also know that most of them are not.

John, on the other hand, was only guilty of preaching the truth about the king and his wife. He didn’t deserve to be there.

John the Baptist, greatest of prophets, forerunner of the Lord, despairs. He doubts his faith in Jesus as the Coming One. He doubts what his eyes have seen and what his ears have heard.

He experiences what another John, St John of the Cross, in the 16th century would call the dark night of the soul. He is in the place of spiritual crisis. But he sends for a word from Jesus.

Jesus responds by telling him that even though he is not in a position to see it right then, the prophetic words of the Old Testament (and more specifically of the prophet Isaiah)  are being fulfilled. When it comes to personal experience, John is going to have to go with what he’s experienced already.

I have been in places of doubt and spiritual crisis with much less trouble surrounding me than was facing John the Baptist. Compared to imprisonment in a 1st century fortress, I’ve faced nothing. Yet the experiences begin to run thin.

I often need to hear that even though nothing seems to be happening in my life, the Coming One has come. And miracles are continuing and the gospel is continuing to change lives. I have to learn to see beyond myself.

That’s when I begin to see that it’s not all about me. In fact, it’s not about me at all.  It’s about the kingdom.

My personal experiences do not validate God. When I look beyond myself,  I see the dawn on the edge of the dark night.

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