Not a Caravaggio, although it could be taken for one! This painting of Saint John the Baptist is by the Spaniard Bartolomé González y Serrano (1564–1627). The Baptist looks pensive, perhaps even discouraged. He came, “neither eating nor drinking”, and they said, “He hath a devil” (Mt 11:18). Does the Forerunner see already that the Lamb of God, the Bridegroom Himself, will be treated dismissively as “a glutton and wine drinker, a friend of publicans and sinners” (Mt 11:19)?
Friday of the Second Week of Advent
Psalm 1: 1-2, 3, 4, 6
The Utmost Vigilance
The Collect given us by the Church today makes us ask for the grace of the utmost vigilance. Cum summa vigilantia, says the text. “Grant, we beseech you, Almighty God, that Your people may await the advent of Your Only-begotten Son with the utmost vigilance.” The prayer goes on to make reference to the teaching of Our Lord in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins: “ . . . so that as He Himself, the Author of our salvation taught us, we may keep watch with lamps burning, and go forth to meet Him when He comes.” “At midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him’” (Mt 25:6). A heart held in readiness for the Bridegroom listens for the faintest sound of His footsteps falling in the night. There are times when prayer is nothing more than this: a waiting in the night, a straining to listen, a readiness to respond to the first sign of His advent.
The Listening Which Changes Life
The prayer of vigilance obliges one to listen closely to the Word, and listening leads to change. “Thus saith the Lord thy redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: I am the Lord thy God that teach thee profitable things, that govern thee in the way that thou walkest” (Is 48:17). Recall what Pope John Paul II wrote eleven years ago in Orientale Lumen: “When a person is touched by the Word obedience is born, that is, the listening which changes life” (OL, art. 10). I think that in writing this, Pope John Paul II gave us the most profound definition of monastic obedience ever formulated.
The Refusal to Listen
If one’s life is not changing, might it not be because one is not listening? If one is not listening, might it not be because one refuses to be touched by the Word? We must, all of us, be vigilant lest we grow hardened in an attitude of resistance to the listening which changes life. It is paradoxical that those who, two generations ago, were the most eager to embrace radical changes in the Church are the very ones who today are the most resistant to reform. In today’s Gospel, Our Lord reproaches those who, having ears, refuse to listen: “But whereunto shall I esteem this generation to be like? It is like to children sitting in the market place. Who crying to their companions say: We have piped to you, and you have not danced: we have lamented, and you have not mourned” (Mt 11:16–17).
One Step Each Day
Writing for the Fathers of Jesus Crucified in April 1937, Mother Marie des Douleurs had this to say about the spiritual readiness to change: “To hold one’s heart in readiness, that is free of everything, to go forward as soon as some providential indication is given, calls for daring and courage, but also for patience. The exaltation of new beginnings are not forever; there must also be long times of waiting, disappointments, failures, and apparent setbacks. None of this is of any importance: God surrounds us with his good will as with a shield. We need not know what the Lord does not tell us in advance. Our part is to take one step each day in the fidelity of a total abandonment that establishes us in peace and leaves us free to act.”
The Light of Life
Providential indications are, in fact, given us every day. The refrain of the Responsorial Psalm puts it this way: “He who follows you, Lord, will have the light of life” (cf. Jn 8:12). The light of life is not given all at once in a grand illumination of the furthest horizons; it is given, rather, one step at a time. Cardinal Newman knew it well.
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on:
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
One Step Enough for Me
Today’s Gospel shows us that is quite possible to be in the presence of the Light and to refuse it, to be in the presence of Holy Wisdom and to choose instead folly. Even that one step can be a costly thing; obedience never comes cheaply. It is the one step, taken in obedience, that sets in motion every going forth to meet the Bridegroom in the night. “Keep thou my feet; I not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.” “Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him” (Mt 25:6). Take the first step and trust that you will be given light for the next. He who comes is the Prince of Peace.