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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Mark Shea: The doubts of John the Baptist

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This is Part 3 of Mark’s series for Advent on St John the Baptist. Click here for Part 1.

Back in my agnostic days, I used to think that one good solid miracle would make a lifelong believer out of the most hardened atheist.  I myself was never able to embrace atheism since the world was simply too mysterious and strange a place for me to declare “There is no God” without trial.  It was too cocksure a sentiment for me.

So I thought that there might be a God, but that precisely the same mysterious strangeness of the world kept me from making any hard and fast declarations about him.

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“If he’d just show himself with one straight up miracle, I’d be good.  I’d never doubt him again.  Nobody would!”

What can I say?  I was young.

The reality, as I was to discover, both in my own life and that of others, is that God can answer your prayers for signs and wonders—sometimes spectacularly—and yet there still remains before us all the need to make the choice to believe.

Take, for instance, the case of Emile Zola. A famous novelist and literary figure, he was an atheist and materialist, but he was not going to let any facts get in his way when he visited Lourdes. Arnold Lunn tells us his story in his book, The Third Day:

Zola . . . accepted with simple faith the unproved and unprovable dogma that the natural world is a closed system, and that supernatural agencies do not exist. Zola’s negative faith was proof against the stubborn fact of the two miracles which he himself witnessed at Lourdes, of which the first was the sudden cure of an advanced stage of lupus.

Zola describes Marie Lemarchand’s condition as he saw her on the way to Lourdes. “It was,” writes Zola, “a case of lupus which had preyed upon the unhappy woman’s nose and mouth. Ulceration had spread and was hourly spreading and devouring the membrane in its progress. The cartilage of the nose was almost eaten away, the mouth was drawn all on one side by the swollen condition of the upper lip. The whole was a frightful distorted mass of matter and oozing blood.”

Zola’s account is incomplete, for the patient was coughing and spitting blood. The apices of both lungs were affected, and she had sores on her leg. Dr. d’Hombres saw her immediately before and immediately after she entered the bath. “Both her cheeks, the lower part of her nose, and her upper lip were covered with a tuberculous ulcer and secreted matter abundantly. On her return from the baths I at once followed her to the hospital.

I recognised her quite well although her face was entirely changed. Instead of the horrible sore I had so lately seen, the surface was red, it is true, but dry and covered with a new skin. The other sores had also dried up in the piscina.” The doctors who examined her could find nothing the matter with the lungs, and testified to the presence of the new skin on her face. Zola was there.

He had said “I only want to see a cut finger dipped in water and come out healed.” “Behold the case of your dreams, M. Zola,” said the President, presenting the girl whose hideous disease had made such an impression on the novelist before the cure.

“Ah no!” said Zola, “I do not want to look at her. She is still too ugly,” alluding to the red color of the new skin. Before he left Lourdes Zola recited his credo to the President of the Medical Bureau. “Were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle.”

Seeing is not automatically believing because belief, in the Christian sense, is not mere intellectual acceptance of some abstract proposition about the existence of an abstract god. Rather, it is the choice to commit oneself body and soul to the crucified and risen Christ, who demands we too take up our cross and follow him.  And not everybody wants to do that.

Not that John the Baptist was some flippant doubter like Zola.  On the contrary, John was the toughest of the tough disciples.  What little we know of him shows us a man willing to give 110% to God.  Committed to him from conception with the promise of an angel, John grew up in a household where he doubtless heard the strange tale of his conception and birth many times.

And he doubtless heard the story of Mary’s visitation to his mother many times too.  As the sixth-month’s-older cousin to Jesus, they likely met from time to time on such occasions as Passover in Jerusalem.  He seems to have, at one and the same time, known something of the strange call on his cousin’s life (since he declares that he needs to be baptised by Jesus (Matthew 3:14)), and yet, by his own admission, the full truth of Jesus’ identity seems not to have dawned on him till the moment of Jesus’ baptism:

“I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven and remain on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptise with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:32-34)

Some people see this as a contradiction. I see it as a very typical specimen of the kind of slow change of heart and mind that is the stuff of Christian conversion. Rare indeed is the dramatic sort of thunderbolt conversion where a St. Paul is knocked off his horse and becomes a believer all in an instant.  In fact, even St. Paul did not really experience an instantaneous conversion.  God took a good while with him before the Damascus Road encounter with Jesus (which is why Jesus could point to his tortured conscience and say to him, “It hurts you to kick against the goads” (Act 26:14)).

And God took a long while afterwards, sending him into the desert like Jesus and then off to Antioch where he spent years learning the oral tradition of the Church and the liturgy.  Only after that long, drawn-out process does the Church finally lay hands on Paul (conferring ordination) and send him off to become the Apostle Paul.  And Paul will, his life long, remark that it is still possible that, having preached to others, he himself could, by sin, end up a castaway (1 Corinthians 9:27).

In short, conversion, in the Christian tradition, is a lifelong process, not a one-time event.  It’s why Jesus took three years instructing his apostles (who still completely fell apart on Good Friday).

And it’s why somebody like Peter could whipsaw from declaring “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16) to, moments later, meriting the rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matthew 16:23).  Conversion is often a two-steps-forward-one-step-back affair.  And even hearing the voice of God from heaven and being granted a vision of the Holy Ghost descending like a dove on Jesus is not a guarantee of some rock solid and permanent grip on faith.

Paradoxically, this is shown to us in one of the most moving scenes in the gospel:

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:2-6)

John’s questioning is heartbreakingly easy to understand.  He has served God his whole life, pouring himself out in a physically, emotionally, and spiritually arduous act of self-denial.  He lived in the desert.  He wore a garment of camel’s hair that was itchy and uncomfortable as a sign of his penitential life.  He subsisted on locust and wild honey.  The Better Sort looked down on him and did not submit to his proffered baptism, seeing him as a lone kook that only the riff-raff took seriously.

He bravely denounced the adulterous marriage of Herod Antipas and, for his troubles, was now rewarded with prison at Machaerus.  And now, sitting in a dark cell with only rats for company and moldy bread for food, the haunting thought returns to him, “Has the whole thing been a mistake—or worse, a lie?  Was all the bright promise of my parents’ stories just rubbish?  Was my head turned by my brief popularity?  Was that long-ago baptism in Jordan just a foolish, empty ritual?  Was the Voice from the heavens just a hallucination induced by my own religious fanaticism?  Was I right about Jesus?”

John stands for every believer in Jesus who has given his all, only to find himself facing loss, shame, martyrdom or, worse, simple oblivion.  No glorious last words.  No dramatic scene before a crowd.  Just rejection.  An idiot tossed aside by a mob for whom he was once a Nine Day Wonder but who have now moved on to some other fad.  Has the whole thing been a cruel cosmic joke?

So he asks his question of Jesus.  And Jesus does not chew him out for his lack of faith.  Jesus knows he is only made of flesh and blood.  So he answers John by pointing to the signs he is working.  Those signs are not mere magic tricks.  On the contrary, as prophetic signs do, they point John back to Israel’s past and the promises of Isaiah about what the dawn of the messianic age will look like:

In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book,

and out of their gloom and darkness

the eyes of the blind shall see.

The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,

and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 29:18-19)


Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then shall the lame man leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:5-6)

John’s hope, says Jesus, has not been in vain.  You were not wasting your time.  You are not a fool.  You are blessed.

Then, significantly, Jesus waits till the messengers of John have left before he turns to the crowd to heap praises on John, who will never—in this life—hear those praises:

“What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who are gorgeously appareled and live in luxury are in kings’ courts. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,

‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,

who shall prepare your way before you.’

I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:24-28)

John is given what he needs to follow Jesus in the next—and final—step he will take in this life.  He is reassured that his faith in Jesus was not in vain.  But he is denied—in this life —the public praises and honors Jesus heaps on him out of earshot.  It is a curiously fitting honor our Lord accords him, for it is like the loneliness and abandonment Jesus himself will experience, despite the fact that he is God’s beloved Son.

For, of course, even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, quailed for a moment at the horrors that awaited him:

And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will.” And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:32-38)

And Jesus, unlike John, will be given no word of reassurance at all other than that the thing can be borne and therefore will be as he experiences his final agonies.  This is one of the thousands of reasons why we are not to judge those whose prayers seem not to be answered.  As C.S. Lewis remarks:

It would be even worse to think of those who get what they pray for as a sort of court favorites, people who have influence with the throne. The refused prayer of Christ in Gethsemane is answer enough to that. And I dare not leave out the hard saying which I once heard from an experienced Christian: “I have seen many striking answers to prayer and more than one that I thought miraculous. But they usually come at the beginning: before conversion, or soon after it. As the Christian life proceeds, they tend to be rarer. The refusals, too, are not only more frequent; they become more unmistakable, more emphatic.”

Does God then forsake just those who serve Him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need. There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore. Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, beyond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.

John the Baptist’s doubt and sense of abandonment and desolation, like that of Jesus and of so many saints was the sign, not of his rejection by God, but of his special favor and love.  He shared with Jesus the terrible sense of loss, not because Christ had tricked him, but because Christ was conforming him profoundly to his own agonised, divinised and glorious life.  And he is doing the same with you and me in our times of suffering, loss, and desolation.  As Lewis’ Uncle Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood in The Screwtape Letters:

You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning.

He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs– to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with the better.

He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

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