Rejoicing in the Defeat of Evil
Third Sunday of Advent (A) | Fr Thomas Skeats ponders the judgment and mercy of God, and the joy that Christ brings.
Saint John in his Gospel tells us that when John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him at the river Jordan he declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Saint Luke tells us that when the Virgin Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth after the Annunciation the child in Elizabeth’s womb – John the Baptist – leaped for joy (Luke 1:41). At these moments, John seemed to know who Jesus was. And yet, at the end of his life John seemed uncertain about the identity of Jesus. In his prison cell questions begin to form in his mind. Was Jesus really the One who was to come, the promised Messiah?
Why these doubts from a man who had seemed so certain of his mission? Perhaps it was not John but his disciples who had doubts and so John sent them to Jesus to let them see for themselves. Perhaps John was impatient for Jesus to be more like the prophet Elijah, a man of fire, who would destroy his enemies, as Elijah had destroyed the prophets of the pagan god Baal (1 Kings 18:40). John might have been wondering from his prison cell when Jesus would begin blasting his opponents and burning up the wicked.
Jesus had a different agenda. The things he had been doing – healing the blind, curing the sick, and preaching the good news – are more like the things that the prophet Isaiah in our first reading says will accompany the coming of God:
He comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing (Isaiah 35:4-5).
Jesus is one step ahead of John, pointing not just to judgment but to the mercy which comes after judgment. Judgment and mercy: to understand who Jesus is we have somehow to hold together these two seemingly irreconcilable attributes of God. Some people don’t like the idea of judgment because they think it is aimed at them (and, of course, they would be right). Others don’t like the message of mercy because they think it lets wicked people off the hook. But the mercy of God does not let evil have the last say.
Jesus commands John’s disciples to go back and tell John what he was doing, what was happening. It is the same work that he continues in his Church today: those who are blind – to the truth about God and themselves – have their eyes opened; those who are not strong enough to walk in the way of his commandments are given the help of his grace; those who are tainted with the disease of sin are restored to spiritual health; those who are deaf to the voice of conscience are made sensitive to right and wrong when they allow him to unstop their ears; those dead because of sin are raised to new life.
So, in fact, Jesus is defeating the powers of evil. The powers of evil are being judged and defeated – not by violence, but by love and mercy. The coming of Jesus reveals to us a God who, yes, does hold us to high standards, and who will be our judge, but who beyond that judgment holds out to the faithful the promise of a new world where evil and iniquity are swept aside and only holiness and joy abound. This weekend we are celebrating Gaudete Sunday – Sunday of Joy. Having passed the midpoint of Advent, the Church lightens the penitential mood of this season a little, providing us with encouragement to continue our spiritual preparation for the coming of this God of mercy.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC.