“What did you go out to look at?” Jesus asks the crowd in this week’s Gospel, “A reed shaken in the wind?” It is an image that has caught the imagination, and provided books and poems, as well as sermons, with a striking title. But what exactly does it mean? The exchange occurs in a section of Matthew’s Gospel that is mostly about the significance of John the Baptist. Clearly, ordinary people were much struck by this extraordinary man, and here Jesus is prompting them to ask themselves why.
Some commentaries suggest that from time to time freak winds blowing through the reeds around the Sea of Galilee created strikingly unusual formations. On this interpretation, Jesus is saying to the people ‘Surely you didn’t go to see John as some kind of freak of nature?’ On the other hand, they can hardly have been drawn by his important social status. No one could have been less like the political dignitary who dresses in soft robes and lives in a royal palace. No, they went to see a prophet. And that means, consciously or unconsciously, they went to see him out of spiritual longing.
This week’s Old Testament lesson gives graphic expression to that longing. It is amongst Isaiah's most famous passages, and one with which the crowd Jesus was addressing was likely to have been familiar. “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy”. John is the harbinger of this vision. Jesus is its fulfilment. The fulfilment is not all sweetness and light, however. “Here is your God”, John adds, “come with vengeance, and terrible recompense”.
The readings for this week offer the possibility of replacing the Psalm with the Magnificat. This reminds us once again that the themes of the first and second comings are interwoven. The First Coming with its carols, social festivities, and baby in the manger falls easily within our comfort zone. We know what to expect, and we like what we know. The Second Coming when (as the brief excerpt from James puts it) ‘the Judge is standing at the doors!’ is a much more unsettling affair. Inevitably, it generates a mixture of personal anxiety and spiritual incomprehension.
Advent is an opportunity to switch familiarity and surprise around. From the perspective of divine love, adverse judgment on the self-centered lives human beings so often lead is only to be expected. Consequently, we ought to find the Incarnation – God dwelling with us -- highly surprising. "What is Man that You should be mindful of him?” Psalm 8 asks, and, we might add, "that You should actually want to live here!"
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