The Baptist stands in the advent period. He fits into our Advent season. For isn’t our life still Advent: faith, expectation, patience, and longing for what is not yet visible? Do not we Christians have to build on what is “merely” hoped for and believed in? If we really want to be Christians, do we not, with God’s folly, have to sacrifice the bird in the hand here on earth for the sake of the two in the heavenly bush monetary advantage, pleasures of the body, harsh insistence on our rights, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, that kingdom of heaven, alas, which no eye has seen?
The Baptist of today’s Gospel belongs to such an Advent of waiting for what is still to come. He is in reality what we ought to be in our lifelong season of Advent. He was in prison. He had been stupid enough to speak the truth even to the master of the state. How could anyone be as politically unrealistic as that? He sits there. It serves him right. No one gets him out. His friends do not start a revolt. They are much too insignificant for that, only interested in theology and quite ineffectual in real life, or so it seems at any rate.
And God, too, leaves his preacher of penance where he is. He too seems to be on the side of the big battalions. And yet he was working miracles in his Son. But is it tragedy or comedy those miracles cured a few poor wretches of apparently no great importance for the kingdom of God. Those miracles did not free the holy prophet, the blood relation and quite official precursor of the man who was working the miracles. He remained imprisoned until he was “liquidated.”
It is not easy for a prophet to sit in prison waiting for certain death, written off, and at the same time to take an interest in miracles which are of no help to himself.
But the Baptist is not a reed shaken by the wind. He believes despite everything. He is the messenger preparing the way for God, in his own life and heart first of all, preparing the way for the God who takes such an inhumanly long time to come and does not even hurry when his prophet is perishing, the God who always seems to arrive only when it is too late. The Baptist knows that God always makes his point, that he wins by losing, that he is living and gives life by being put to death himself, that he is the future which seems to have no future.
In a word, the Baptist believes. It was not easy for him. His heart was bitter and the sky overcast. The question in his heart has a rather agonized ring: Are you he who is to come? But that question was nevertheless addressed to the right person, to God who is man. In prayer we may show even a frightened heart to God, a heart that can practically do no more and no longer knows how long its strength will hold out. In a heart that prays there still remains faith and this receives a sufficient answer: “Go and tell John what you see and blessed is he who takes no offence at me” even if he sits abandoned in prison.
We are in Advent all through our lives, for we Christians await one who is still to come. Only then shall we be proved right. Until then, however, the world seems to be right. The world will laugh, you will weep, our Lord said. We too are sitting in a dungeon, in the prison of death, of unanswered questions, of our own weakness, our own meanness, of the hardship and tragedy of our life. We shall not get out alive. But everyday we shall send the messengers of our faith and prayer to him who will come thence to judge the living and the dead. These advent messengers will come back each time with the answer: I am coming; blessed is he who takes no offence at me.
Karl Rahner, The Advent of Faith (on Matthew 11:2-10)