When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
From time to time, if we are able to see through the aura of accumulated holiness hanging thick around the heroes of the Bible, the saints and the prophets, we find in them a remarkable ignorance. They so often have no clue about how the circumstances of their lives actually fit into the movement of God in their time. John the Baptist, for example, seems so average here. It’s as if he is conscious of being carried along by a stream, but is not entirely sure of where the stream is going.
David Roche, in his book The Church of 80% Sincerity writes:
The Principle of Delayed Understanding…states that you cannot understand what is going on while it is going on….consciousness always lags behind reality. Here is proof: How many of you are still trying to figure out things that happened in your childhood, twenty, forty years ago? The best you can hope for is to minimize the length of time it takes to catch on….When you think you understand what is going on while it is going on, you are most likely delusional. This is simply a statement of reality and frees us from the need to pretend, to beat ourselves up for not knowing the right words or actions. Don’t worry about not knowing the answer immediately. Don’t confuse yourself with Google.
Half the battle of being a person of faith is learning to live with ambiguity, of accepting uncertainty; the other half is learning how to live with it, of not allowing our ignorance to paralyze us with anxiety or diminish our hope.
Consider the rabbinical story, found in various tellings, commonly known as Elijah and the Cow:
Rabbi Jachanan went on a journey with the prophet Elijah. They walked all day, and when evening came they arrived at the humble cottage of a poor man, whose only treasure was a cow. This poor man ran out of his cottage, and his wife ran too, greeting the strangers and welcoming them in for the night. They offered them all the simple hospitality which they were able to give in their humble circumstances. Elijah and the Rabbi were given plenty of the cow’s milk, and butter, yoghurt and cheeses. Satisfied, they were put to sleep in the only bed while their kindly hosts lay down before the kitchen fire.
But in the morning the poor man’s cow was dead. The Rabbi looked at Elijah, but he was silent.
Again, they walked all the next day, and came in the evening to the house of an extremely wealthy man. This man, however, was cold hearted and inhospitable, and all that he would do for Elijah and the Rabbi was to lodge them in his cowshed and feed them stale bread and water. In the morning, Elijah thanked him for his hospitality, and – noting that one of the walls in the shed was falling down – sent for a man to repair it, paying the bill himself. Finally, Elijah and the Rabbi were on their way again.
Rabbi Jachanan, unable to keep silent any longer, exasperated with Elijah, begged the holy man to explain himself and the way he had treated the two hosts.
‘In regard to the poor man and his wife who received us so hospitably,’ replied Elijah, ‘it was decreed that the wife was to die that night. However, knowing how much the man loves his wife, I pleaded with the angel of death – who never leaves empty handed – that he should take the cow instead.’
‘And with regard to the inhospitable rich man, I repaired his wall because I noticed a jar of gold coins concealed in it, and if the miser had repaired the wall himself he would have discovered the treasure, something for which he is not worthy. So, say not to the Lord: What doest Thou? But say in thy heart: Must not the Lord of all the earth do right?’
Perhaps you remember how someone else once famously put it: “There are things we know we know; things we know we don’t know; and things we don’t know we don’t know.” Personally I prefer the sentiment as expressed by the American rock band 4 Non Blondes, in their 1993 hit ‘What’s Up?‘:
And so I cry sometimes
When I’m lying in bed, just to get it all out
What’s in my head
And I, I am feeling a little peculiar
And so I wake in the morning
And I step outside
And I take a deep breath and I get real high
And I scream from the top of my lungs:
What’s going on?!
It’s Gaudete Sunday this week, the Sunday that takes its name from the first word of the introit to the Mass: Rejoice! On this 3rd Sunday of Advent we are invited to lighten up, to Rejoice in the Lord always, to raise our heads and look for the dawning of a new age marked by the promise of healing and restoration.
This is that half of faith that says: even if I don’t understand, I will trust. The half that led the disciples up the mountainside where “they worshipped him, even though they doubted” (Matthew 28:17).
Faith is never going to make perfect sense; that’s why it’s called faith. Thank goodness. Because in order for faith to make perfect sense it would have to be constrained by a world where everything can be measured and explained and knowable, a world without mystery or profound beauty or unbounded hope.
It is not, and neither are we.