Why do we lack patience? – with the children, with the husband, with others? St. James tells us, “You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.” There is a connection between patience and the presence of the Lord – that the Lord is near. We lack patience when we do not recognize that the Lord is near. And when we do not recognize the presence of the Lord with us, we complain. Life is reduced to complaints. We think the solution to our problems is to change our life and our circumstances. We do not want to wait. We lack hope. Does that describe our life – our family life or work life? That in a sense we feel “stuck” and find ourselves complaining? To those who complain about each other, James says, “Take as an example of hardship and patience the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”
The Gospel today gives us the example of John the Baptist, who is, according to the words of the Lord, a prophet, but one who is even more than a prophet. John the Baptist is a man of hope. Even stuck in jail (a very difficult situation), he is waiting for the Lord. He is seeking the Lord. He does not lack hope because he has in his heart a question addressed to Jesus, “Are you the one to come or do we have to wait for another?” Jesus does not simply say, “Yes, it is I. I am the Messiah,” but he answers, “Go and tell John what you hear and see … ” Why does Jesus respond this way? The acceptance of Jesus has to come from a personal judgment based on facts – events in reality that have happened – undeniable changes that one can witness and point to. Acceptance of Jesus as God can’t happen simply because someone says so or through a theological argument or lining up the Old Testament passages that describe the Messiah and showing how Jesus does all those things. And one needs to make a judgment on those objective facts. Who is this that can generate this new life in me? A happiness, joy, and fulfillment, and a new way of looking at the world that I didn’t think was possible? What you see and hear and the person who is speaking and acting that way carries a presence that corresponds to the deep desire of the heart. Coming to faith is not simply in your mind. It is not a hope in complete darkness. What you have heard from the ancient prophets is fulfilled now, in your experience. The Lord is near even if Jesus does not fit John’s plan, idea, or style. “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” We lack patience when, because of a difficulty, we think that the Lord is letting us down – that my happiness is not possible in this situation. We presume that we know the end – where this path leads. I’m being defrauded and a fool to stay on this path. Therefore, I have to leave, fight, or change the situation. “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” means, “blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me.” What Jesus is saying is that even if what you are experiencing is contrary to or different than your expectation, this situation is not an obstacle to your happiness, but, for those who recognize him, it is the path that the Lord will use to lead you to your happiness – to your destiny. We can wait, and be patient because the Lord is coming. We lack patience when we think that faith, His presence, is not enough to save us. In that case, we seek alternatives to Christ, substitutes for the Lord. We take matters into our own hands.
Through his questions, Jesus wants the people to become aware of why they were attracted to John. “What did you go out to the desert to see? John is a man who lives without substitutes for God. John has no possessions – he lives in the desert. John doesn’t look for pleasures. John has no interest in conforming to popular opinions; he is not swayed by the powers of the dominant culture. He doesn’t need fancy things. In this, John is a free man. He totally depends on God. This is what attracts people. People want freedom – the freedom of the children of God – and they see it in John. We are patient when we believe that God is my provident Father – that God will provide. This is not merely an idea, but the only way to live with hope and joy that does not depend on my circumstance.
Not too long ago, a friend of mine for many years, who happens to be named John, left the Church and lost his faith in large part because of the priest scandal. He made a very good case to me – pointing to the history of abuse and corruption – that the Church commits fraud in a way akin to an organized crime syndicate. What could I say to refute that? A theological argument about sin and our fallen human nature or putting things in historical context was not helpful. The only thing I could do was tell John what I’ve heard and seen in my life – how my life was changed, how my eyes were opened, how I was given hope and freedom and learned to walk again – was given new life – when going through a time of personal darkness. These were changes that I didn’t generate in myself. They were changes that surprised me – that I didn’t think were possible, that filled me with peace and joy that I had never experienced before – a peace and happiness that has, for the most part remained. These are the facts I look at when the news around me is bleak. The best argument is to be faithful to who I met and where I met Him, and to be a witness like John the Baptist who can awaken that desire for Christ in others. This time of Advent is a time of hope – that the Lord will open our eyes to his presence, a presence that makes us happy because the Lord is near.