John the Baptist still occupies centre stage in the gospel today but now, instead of a striking figure calling to repentance in the wilderness he sits in a dark, stone prison. We are, of course, not surprised. We knew it would happen. No one can speak unpalatable truths to the power brokers of the land without penalty. John is suffering the fate of the true prophet.
Our reflection on this lonely figure, silenced for his obedience to God's word, directs our conscience to the question of our own relationship to those who tell us truths we don't want to hear, as well as our readiness to speak unpopular truths to the world around us. It is a complex question of discernment which can only bear fruit in the light of grace-filled prayer. Our relationship to truth is the very same reality as our relationship to God because - God is truth.
Advent is a time for precisely such reflection. Do I think truthfully. Do I speak truthfully? Do I judge truthfully? Do I live truthfully? For most of us, over these simple yet profound questions there lies the thick blanket of our self-deception. Do not the guilty always proclaim their innocence? Do not the liars always profess honesty? Do not the thieves always assert their integrity?
Only God's breath, the Holy Spirit, can disperse the dark clouds surrounding our corrupted hearts; only the double-edged sword of his Word can cut through our stubborn determination to see things as we are rather than as things are.
Imprisoned in his cell John the Baptist is, nevertheless, truly free - liberated by truth - but he is still human and, it seems, in need of some reassurance. In the darkness of his cell, cut off from the outside world, from Jesus and from his ministry, John needs his certainty to be fortified. The sharp memory of events by the river Jordan, which had allowed him so confidently to point him out as 'the One' .. 'the Lamb of God', that sharp memory had now begun to fade.
Perhaps it was the darkness and coldness of his prison which began to seep into him so that he began to wonder. Perhaps he heard false rumours, or maybe he just grew confused and less confident in his solitude. We could say that Jesus' face and his identity became blurred in the mind of John.
C S Lewis, in his book, A Grief Observed, mentions how when his wife died he had only one photo of her, a really poor one. But he says that he was glad of this because it meant he was in no danger of giving in to the temptation to reduce the memory of his wife to one photo of her. He constantly had to exercise his memory to reach beyond this photo to all the other memories he had of her face, all her different smiles and looks and actions - to the truth of the person she was.
This is what John the Baptist was doing. He was reaching out for the real Jesus - the truth. So he sent his disciples to ask the Lord if he was the One, the One promised by the Scriptures. And Jesus told those disciples to tell John what they saw Jesus doing. Jesus knew that John had an intimate knowledge of the Sacred Scripture and so he described himself in scriptural terms: Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.
John would have rejoiced to hear those words for now he knew that Jesus and the One promised in the Scriptures were the same person. Jesus made himself known to John in the Scriptures, just as he had revealed himself to the Emmaus disciples in the breaking of the bread.
This is truly a matter for rejoicing. What a lesson for us! With utmost confidence we, too, can now turn to the sacred, inspired texts of the Bible and discover there the face of the Master.
C.S. Lewis has provided us with a character in another of his books, The Chronicles of Narnia, which helps us to understand further the joy of John the Baptist. This character was called Tashlan. He was a picture of the anti-Christ who is to come before the end of world history.
Tashlan, of course, was pure evil. A cloud of noxious insects followed in his wake and he had the ugly face of an evil bird of prey. Wherever he walked the grass would shrivel under his feet, the flowers would wilt and the trees would die. Unhappiness and disaster followed in his footsteps. Can you imagine how you would feel seeing him approach, with everything decaying around him?
Now compare the coming of the promised One, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus. If you want to contemplate his inner truth - just contemplate in the First Reading what happens around him as he approaches: Strengthen all weary hands, steady all trembling knees and say to all faint hearts, `Courage! Do not be afraid. Look your God is coming.' Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed, then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy for those the Lord has ransomed shall return. They will come to Zion shouting for joy, everlasting joy on their faces; joy and gladness will go with them and sorrow and lament be ended.
No wonder this is Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of Advent marked with the joy of expectation. Our God is coming. Soon we will be set free.
Let the wilderness and the dry-lands exult, let the wasteland rejoice and bloom, let it bring forth flowers like the jonquil, let it rejoice and sing for joy ... they shall see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God.