Almost 18 years ago to this very day, the world was introduced to a new invention promising to revolutionize our civilization, changing forever how we move about our cities and towns. This radically new people mover promised to have engineers redesign entire cities around it. The inventor of one of the most hyped products of the decade said his new device will “be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy."
And so it came to pass that on December 3, 2001, on Good Morning America and in front of the entire world, we were introduced to the Segway for the very first time. Upon finally seeing what all the hype had really been about, one of GMA’s co-hosts, Diane Sawyer, famously quipped, “That’s it?”
Disappointingly, the Segway was never able to live up to the hype its creators and others set for it. Its otherwise brilliant inventor said he expected to sell 50,000 vehicles in the first year. However, in the first decade since its release, the Segway never sold more than 30,000 devices.
Economists and anthropologists of the future may debate the reasons the Segway never really took off. But by far my favorite reason has to be from Steve Jobs. Although he was critical of the project from the beginning, Jobs ended up investing $10 million into the project anyway.
When asked what he thought of the device and it’s design, Jobs curtly proclaimed, “I think it sucks!”
“Why?” asked a friend.
“It just does” he said.
On this Third Sunday of Advent, also known as “Gaudete Sunday”—the Latin for “Rejoice” which is the first word of the biblical sentences sung at the beginning of Mass—we hear in our scripture readings the invitation to make our hearts ready and to prepare for the one who does indeed live up to the hype promised by the prophets and sages of old—Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah relates the joyful hope and peace abounding that shall be ours upon the day the Lord comes to meet his people.
The Prophet writes,
“The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).
On that glorious day, the entire created order shall be exalted to the heights it was intended to occupy from the beginning. For example, everlasting joy and gladness—these qualities that have their origin in God—will be wholly shared by God’s beloved creation. As an heir receives his or her inheritance, so we, God’s people will receive from God what was always intended for us to possess.
In our second reading from the Letter of James, we hear the writer exhort the early Christians living outside of Palestine to have patience in the face of adversity. The author of the Epistle says to us today as he spoke so long ago to our forebears, “Be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” (James 5: 8). The salvation of the Lord comes to those with endurance, he says. For those who in the past showed endurance, James writes, “we call [them] blessed” (James 5:11).
And finally in today’s Gospel, we read of the tribulations of St. John the Baptist and the message contained in the last words spoken by Jesus to his cousin before John’s death.
Imprisoned by King Herod and perhaps knowing his end is near, John the Baptist sent two disciples to ask Jesus a seemingly straightforward question, “Are you the Messiah, the one who is to come?”
But why does John ask this question here? One would not be blamed if one sensed a hint of uncertainty, perhaps even desperation in John’s question. It is as if John is asking Jesus, “Are you the person for whom I would willingly give up my life in order to follow? Or, if you are a false Messiah, tell me quickly so I may recant and still save my life.”
John’s simple question may perplex us, not for the answer it seeks, but for the very reason it is asked.
To consider where in John’s heart this question arises, let us for a moment consider our own lives as religious brothers and sisters, or as those who have a devout calling to our particular vocation.
In a sense, John’s question mirrors what many members of religious communities may ask themselves—particularly as they near the end of their life.
Kathleen Norris writes in her book, Acedia and Me, how those in religious orders may experience feelings of dread, of desolation, of apathy, of sloth (that which we call “Acedia”)—particularly near the end of our lives. “Acedia, she writes, “has long been considered a peculiarly monastic affliction, and for good reason. It is risky business to train oneself to embrace a daily routine that mirrors eternity in its changlesless, deliberately removing distractions from one’s life in order to enter into a deeper relationship with God. Under these circumstances acedia’s assault is not merely an occupational hazard, it is a given” (Acedia and Me, p. 5).
Acedia makes the agéd heart of one of God’s humble servants question why they have not received a more tangible reward after all their years of service. The brother or sister afflicted with acedia may feel a great chasm between the God they have devoted their lives to and the God who, in their final moments, feels distant, unconcerned, or entirely absent.
I’m convinced John the Baptist experienced some of these feelings whilst stuck in a jail cell with Death knocking at his door.
Does this mean John began to doubt his vocation or his particular calling? Not entirely. John’s message of repentance is, after all, a message calling for us to make a definitive choice. Last week, we read in the scriptures of John the Baptist exhorting the people of Israel to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2). And John truly lived what he preached. We read he wore camel’s hair with a leather belt, that he “came neither eating nor drinking” (Matthew 11:18), and how he was bold enough to openly rebuke the actions of a sexually immoral ruler. The scriptures make clear: in John the Baptist we are not dealing with a man who has compromised his moral integrity for the sake of corporate popularity. We see instead a man who has firmly chosen to follow the path of God and to practice exactly what he preached.
But the question John asks Jesus is still a surprising one, no?
Given the unique connection Jesus seems to have with John the Baptist through their own familial ties and history, one must wonder why John would have ANY doubts as to Jesus’ own Messiahship.
John’s question, however, doesn’t indicate a lack of faith. Indeed, doubt over one’s vocation is not from the devil but is a healthy and natural mental process. By questioning and re-examining that which we hold dear—NOT to destroy the beauty of our convictions—we purify them, whistling them down to their essential nature.
We never do hear how John responded to Jesus’ answer. We cannot know for certain if Jesus’ answer was even received by John before he died. But John’s death at the hands of Herod may be the evidence we need to know Jesus’ answer was received and accepted by John.
And, having been assured that Jesus was the one who is to come, John suffered the death Jesus warns may be ours if we wish to follow him. For Christ says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
Today, we may, like John the Baptist, ask God to make known in us his fullness so that whatever trials and tribulations we face, we may know with godly peace that which God always intended for us to possess. Even in our brokenness, in our failures and weaknesses, both as a Church and as individuals, we are made strong through our belief in Christ and empowered to preach his message to the ends of the earth.
Before he was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, wrote about the witness Anglicanism provides in demonstrating this difficult dance. In his book, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, Ramsey wrote:
“While the Anglican Church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to the gospel, to the Church and to sound learning, its greater vindication lies in pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy; it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as the “best type of Christianity”, but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died.”
Today, we have heard the prophets and apostles point us to know when the day of the Lord has come and to bear with patience the trials and travails of this mortal life. But rejoice! Fear not! We are not misled. We are not deceived. The hype will not disappoint. For truly in our brokenness, we are made whole and square with God through Christ. He IS the one—the only one—who sets our hearts aright and restores to us all what was intended from the first.
Today, let us strive to remember that only through Christ can we begin to know who we truly are, for it is he alone who has been promised of old to come. We need not wait for any other.
Third Sunday of Advent, Year A
Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:46b-55
Delivered at San Damiano Friary in San Francisco, California on December 15, 2019.
Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org