Second Sunday of Advent, Sermon #2, by Bishop Geremia Bonomelli, D.D.

At that time: 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? And Jesus making answer said to them: Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, the poor have the gospel preached to them: And blessed is he that shall not be scandalized in Me. And when they went their way, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: What went you out into the desert to see? a reed shaken with the wind? But what went you out to see? a man clothed in soft garments? Behold, they that are clothed in soft garments are in the houses of kings. But what went you out to see? a prophet? Yea, I tell you, and more than a prophet. For this is He of whom it is written: Behold I send My angel before Thy face, who shall prepare Thy way before Thee. – Matthew 11:2-10

My friends, such is the Gospel of this Sunday, the second of Advent, taken from the eleventh chapter of Saint Matthew. The sense of the words of Our Lord is so plain that they scarcely need an explanation; but if the meaning of the words of the Gospel is easily understood it may not be so easy for us to apply them to ourselves and to our needs. We frequently see physicians, who fall sick, and who, though eminent in their profession, call in other physicians to minister to them, men much inferior in knowledge and skill to themselves. The same happens in the spiritual care of souls; we need others who may suggest remedies and lovingly minister to our ills.

Today I shall confine myself to drawing from the words of Christ some lessons useful for our mutual edification.

The Gospel which has just been read consists of two distinct parts: in the first part is given an account of the embassy which John Baptist sent to Jesus Christ; in the second are given the reply of Jesus Christ and His eulogy on His precursor. Before giving the explanation of the text permit me to say a few words by way of introduction.

The office of the Precursor was to prepare the Jewish people for the coming of Christ, and this John had marvelously fulfilled by his life of austerity in the desert and by his preaching of penance along the banks of the Jordan. The burning words of the Baptist had wonderfully stirred both priests and people and had gathered about him a following of disciples. More than once John seeing Jesus Christ had pointed Him out to the multitudes as the Lamb of God and protested his own unworthiness to loose the latchets of His shoes. He affirmed that He had seen the Holy Ghost descend upon Him and that all should become His followers. John had the joy and the glory of giving to Jesus Christ His first and chief apostles, namely, Peter and Andrew, John and James. Having fulfilled his mission the Precursor retired into obscurity. To his other crimes Herod added that of casting John into prison, because the Baptist with the courage of a saint rebuked him for his guilty relations with the wife of his brother. The fame of the preaching and of the miracles of Jesus reached John in his prison. It should be remembered that John had still a certain number of disciples who visited him in prison and who probably brought him word of the great works wrought by Christ. These disciples had not done as their companions and become followers of Jesus Christ, nor had they obeyed John who encouraged them to do so. It may be that they cherished a feeling of envy against Jesus Christ, and they complained that He also baptized, thus obscuring the glory of their own master.

These disciples, otherwise good men, were, as you see, excessively attached to John. This ill-advised love for their master made them disobedient to him and unjust toward Jesus Christ. Their love for their master was intensified by their own self-love, which made them obstinate and sensitive at seeing the reputation of John apparently waning. We are so constituted that we sometimes have an ill-regulated love for what is in itself good, and we hide our dislike and ill-will toward our neighbor under an apparent zeal for the honor of another.

Even in our own day we sometimes see persons who come to church and are assiduous in the practice of their religion, and others again who stay away, solely because either they like or dislike this priest or that. They are like the disciples of John and in dealing with things of God they regard men rather than God.

I am not ignorant, my friends, that certain modern students of sacred and biblical science, learned men, give to this Gospel narrative an interpretation different from that which you have just heard. They say that John Baptist, shut up in the fortress of Machaerus, in a moment of weakness doubted whether the Jesus, whom he had saluted as the Lamb of God, and the Saviour of the world, was truly the expected Messias and the Son of God made man. They add that John in sending the embassy wished in a way to urge Jesus to show Himself to be the Messias and by His authority to come to the aid of an abandoned prisoner.

Both explanations are wholly at variance with the character of the Precursor. It would be doing him an injustice to suspect that John after his solemn profession to Jesus would stagger in his faith or would need the comfort of a message, or would solicit even indirectly his own release from confinement. John was not a reed to be shaken by the wind, as Jesus will soon tell us, nor was he a man to grow pale at the sight of a gibbet. His firm faith, the supreme trials to which he had been put, the indomitable courage he had displayed in the synagogue and in the presence of Herod, all force us to reject these interpretations as unworthy of the greatest of those born of woman.

John, then, wished his disciples to be convinced that Jesus was truly the Messias. What did he do to enlighten them? John said to himself: If these my disciples, who are over-sensitive of my good name, shall see Jesus Christ, and witness His works, and hear His words, they will assuredly be convinced that He is the Messias and they will leave me to follow Him. Therefore calling them to him he said: “Go to Jesus and say to Him in my name: Art thou He whom we expect, or must we look for another?”

Admire, my friends, this wonderful man’s great love of truth and his zeal for the cause of Jesus Christ. He uses all his authority and employs a holy industry to detach his disciples from himself and to send them to Our Lord; and even in prison, when the axe of the executioner is flashing over his head, he continues his office of precursor and apostle.

The disciples obeyed at once; they went to Jesus and repeated to Him the words that John had put into their mouths: “Art Thou He who is to come, that is, the Messias, and the Saviour of the world, or shall we look for another?” The question was precise and to the point, and the answer given, not in words, but in deeds more eloquent than words, was equally precise and to the point: “Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” Jesus Christ could have said to the messengers of John: “Yes, tell your master that I am verily He whom Israel expects, the Messias, as John himself has proclaimed Me to be before the people.” But instead Jesus Christ wanted the messengers themselves to know the truth and He wanted to give to themselves and to John the answer of which the facts they had before their eyes were the basis and the proof. At the very time when the messengers of John appeared before Jesus, He was surrounded by a crowd of infirm, those suffering from all manner of disease, the blind, the lame, the deaf, and lepers, who implored Him to cure them and who were healed; and there were also the dead who were restored to life. Saint Luke narrates this fact, thus supplementing the narrative of Saint Matthew. These cures, so diverse, numerous, and instantaneous, wrought by a sign, by a word, before the multitude, who witnessed everything, dissipated all doubt concerning the divine mission of Jesus Christ and forced the most stubborn and distrustful to accept His teaching and to believe without wavering that He was verily the looked-for Saviour of the world.

The Gospel does not tell us what the messengers of John did or said, but being, as they must have been, upright and honest men, I think they yielded at once to the evidence of facts, reported to John what they had seen and heard, and rejoiced his heart by declaring their readiness to follow Jesus Christ.

Allow me, my friends, to make an application which the fact just narrated naturally suggests. The blind and the lame, the lepers and the deaf went to Jesus to be cured; even the dead were brought to Him that they might be restored to life; and Jesus received all kindly, granted their requests, and sent all away comforted and rejoicing. How many among us are blind and halt mentally, covered with the filthy leprosy of sin, deaf to the voice of conscience, and miserably dead in soul! And we are all the more unfortunate and objects of compassion in that we frequently do not know our condition. It is a great misfortune not to see the light of the sun and to live in dense and hopeless darkness; but it is an incomparably greater misfortune not to see the light of truth and to grope in the darkness of error. We are moved to pity at seeing one who can not stand on his feet or walk a step, but a still more deplorable sight is that of so many of our fellow-men who lie listless, willing slaves to their baser passions. It gives one a cold chill to look upon a leper, wasting away with this incurable disease, his flesh falling from him in shreds and he drinking in by slow draughts the most cruel of deaths, but what shall be said of a sinner who, because he is such, is an object of horror to God and His angels. Here is an unfortunate man who is deaf; he is always sad, gloomy, and suspicious; all intercourse between him and his fellow-men is broken off, no note of harmony comes to him to rejoice his hearing and no word to awaken his intelligence to a knowledge of himself, of his duty, and of his God. He is a faint image of those Christians who never hear the word of God and who close the ears of their heart to the cries of a remorseful conscience. A corpse is a frightful sight – the eyes half open and glassy that see not, the ears that hear not, the silent tongue, the rigid hands and feet, the whole body immobile, cold, lifeless – all inspire a nameless fear; but a soul in sin, if only we could see it, is a sight incomparably more horrifying than any corpse. It is dead to grace and to God, and of itself it is incapable of any good act, and should it be separated from the body while in this condition it would be lost forever. What, then, are these poor blind and lame, the lepers, the deaf, and the dead to do? That same Jesus who healed the diseases of the body and raised the dead to life, still and always abides in the Church and He is ready and anxious to renew in the souls of men the same miracles which He wrought in Judea on their bodies. If Jesus never sent away a single person sick of body without healing him and often when He was not asked, what will He not do for those who are sick of soul? Did He not come on earth chiefly to save souls? Then let us go to Him, and the eyes of our mind will be opened; we shall stand erect upon our feet and tread in the path of virtue; our consciences will be cleansed, our ears spiritually healed, and our souls will rise to a new life, because He is the light, the truth, and the life.

I can not help calling your attention to these beautiful words of the Son of God, which He gave us as a certain proof of His coming: “The poor have the Gospel preached to them.” I can not tell you how these words thrill my very heart. The world, my friends, never forget it, has no love for the poor, who are necessarily illiterate. The learned and the philosophers of all ages and countries, not only never deigned to instruct the poor, but they were at pains to keep them in ignorance and would not permit them to cross the threshold of their schools and academies. Learning was the privilege of the few, the heritage of the rich. It was a cruelty beyond name . 1 Jesus Christ was the first to teach that His knowledge should belong to all and especially to the poor, because their needs were greatest. It was Jesus who brought upon earth that holy equality of all as regards the possession of truth. It was He who said to His apostles: “Go, teach all nations. Freely have you received, freely give to all. My Gospel must be preached to the poor.” What a comforting doctrine! What a blessing!

“Blessed is he that is not scandalized in Me.” The hardest trial to which the faith of the apostles and those who lived at that time was put, was unquestionably the very sight of Jesus Himself. He was a poor man, He had not whereon to lay His head, He lived on charity, He had always toiled as other workmen toiled, He suffered from hunger and thirst, He was calumniated, persecuted, and put to death on the cross as a malefactor, and to be obliged to believe that such a man was God, the Lord of heaven and earth! We must confess, my friends, that the very sight of Jesus Christ was a rock of scandal, that it was a temptation to say: “No, this man may be a saint indeed, and a worker of great miracles, but He can not be God. He may be a prophet and a man of God, but God! – no, it is out of the question, it is contrary to reason that the majesty of God should be so abased.” And thus indeed did many reason at that time and refused to believe in Jesus Christ. This is why He said: “Blessed is he that is not scandalized in Me.” We live more than nineteen hundred years after those men, we know not only the miracles wrought by Jesus Christ Himself, but also those equally great, wrought in His name; and we are amazed when we contemplate the immense glory that has gathered about His person in the course of centuries and raised Him to a height in the world’s estimation that has no parallel. No, we can not take scandal at the humiliations of Jesus Christ, because they witness to His immeasurable charity and are as nothing when compared with His resplendent glories.

And when the messengers of John went their way, Jesus Christ began to say to the multitudes concerning John: “What went you out into the desert to see? A reed shaken hy the wind?” Doubtless the coming of John’s messengers and their questions were discussed by the multitudes and the name of John was for the moment on the lips of all. Hence Jesus Christ seized the opportunity to speak of him, to praise him, and to bear public testimony to him, as John had done to Him, thus showing that between them there existed the most perfect harmony.

No one ever had the privilege of receiving from Jesus Christ such splendid eulogies as those received by John. Many of the multitude to whom – Jesus addressed His words, must have gone out into the desert to see John when he was preaching there, and hence Jesus said to them: “You went out to see John; you did well; and what did you see! Possibly a man who changed at every breath of wind!” The question evidently implied a negative answer, as if one should say: “Surely you did not see a man who yielded at every gust of wind! You found a resolute man, equal to any emergency, one who was not frightened by threats or seduced by promises, who was always consistent, whose speech was ever the same, who, whether addressing the people or standing in the presence of a king, had one inflexible rule and that was his love of truth.”

My friends, how many of us would be worthy of the praises of John? Let us be honest; we are too often as reeds shaken by the wind; we are weak because we fear criticism, because we love the world’s praise, because we are overcome by human respect; and we sacrifice conscience, duty, and truth.

Jesus Christ, continuing His praise of John, says: “But what went you out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold they that are clothed in soft garments are in the houses of kings.” “You saw John in the desert. How was he dressed? Possibly his garments were rich and soft? Did he feast sumptuously and was his food rich and choice? Was he a man who loved comforts and a pleasant life and indulged his body? Ye who saw him, tell Me.” “He was clothed with camel’s hair and a leathern girdle about his loins, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” John was an austere man and a man of penance. Those who live easy lives, who love pleasure and indulge the flesh, dwell in the houses of the great and in the palaces of kings, and not in the desert as John did.

In these words Jesus teaches us an important lesson. He teaches us that those who lead luxurious lives, who indulge their appetites and dress in soft garments, do not lead the life of a follower either of John or of Him; He teaches us that we must make war on the flesh, mortify the senses, and, in a word, lead a penitential life, if we would be His disciples. Virtue, my friends, does not thrive except in the shadow of the cross; austerity of life builds it up, indulgence pulls it down. The idea that the practice of virtue is possible or that salvation can be attained by any other means is a strange delusion.

“But what went you out to see? A prophet? Yea, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” Jesus Christ gives John a triple praise. First He says that he is a firm, unbending man; next that he is a mortified man; and finally that he is a prophet and more than a prophet. The word prophet in Holy Writ is sometimes used in a wide sense to designate one who announces truth in the name of God; again, and more frequently, it is used in a more restricted sense to designate one who foretells future events. Here Jesus Christ, in calling John a prophet, if I mistake not, uses the word in both senses. John was a prophet because he was a teacher of the people and preached a moral doctrine, which was in substance that of the Gospel. He was also a prophet because he reminded the people of the promises made to Israel, announced that the predictions of the ancient prophets were soon to be fulfilled, and assured them, that the coming of the Messias was at hand. Finally, he was more than a prophet, because he pointed out with his finger the Saviour of the world, whom the other prophets had only foretold from afar.

The Gospel closes with a prediction of the prophet Malachias which Jesus Christ declares is fulfilled in John Baptist: “For this (John) is he of whom it is written: Behold, I send’ My angel before Thy face, who shall prepare Thy way before Thee.” Christ, as is clear from Scripture, was to come twice on the earth; first as the Redeemer of the world, and next as supreme Judge. The first coming has already taken place, the second will take place at the end of time. The precursor of the first was John Baptist; the precursor of the second will be Elias. The spirit, the virtue, and I may say, the ministry of these two great men are similar and almost the same. This is why in Sacred Scripture one is often put for the other, and Jesus Christ Himself says that Elias is already come and that John is he. But it is clear from the context that Jesus Christ called John Elias, not because John was truly Elias, but because he was full of the spirit of Elias and prepared the way for Him at His first coming.

My friends, let the words of Jesus Christ, which you have just heard, and the examples of virtue given by His precursor, sink deep into your minds; store them in your memory and study to imitate them.