With this past week's readings from the Gospel of Matthew we are approaching the end of the Advent Gospel readings, beginning on 11 December, having to do with the person and mission of Saint John the Baptist. We've learned that he is the "greatest born of women" (Mt 11), the new Elijah (Mt 17), and the baptizer crying out in the wilderness (Jn 1). In today's reading, Jesus uses the question of John's authority to thwart the machinations of the chief priests and elders of the Temple: "Where was John's baptism from? Was it of heavenly origin or of human origin?" (Mt 21)
Our Lord asks this question because he knows the motivations of his interlocutors. They are not interested in truth, but in maintaining the political and religious status quo of Israel. John's movement of repentance was viewed with suspicion by the civil authorities, and if the priests and elders were to legitimize John's baptism they would lose civil support. Then again, if they were to denounce John's baptism as of merely human invention then the popular movement surrounding him would rise against them.
This line of questioning is generally applicable to our lives as Christians: "Do you believe [such-and-such] is of human or divine origin? Do you care about truth, or are your conclusions motivated by worldly concerns? Perhaps you simply prefer to remain in silence?" These questions can be applied to any issue found today in the secular and ecclesial sphere, primarily as a means of discerning how seriously we trust the Church's teachings as being of divine origin and approval. There are the traditional sanctity-of-human-life issues, such as abortion, contraception, IVF, human cloning, et cetera: "Do I follow the Church's teachings, or some other guide?" There are issues of justice, such as poverty, migrant justice, economic justice, and so on: "Do I follow the Church's teachings, or some other guide?"
My greatest fault is silence. There have been situations in my life in which I chose not to commit to the truth before others for the sake of keeping the peace. When reflecting back upon such situations I have met my own cowardice face-to-face. Sometimes this self-reflection leads to greater humility; other times, I stew in my own embarrassment and shame. I hope readers can pick-out which of these is the healthier response as a Christian.
Advent is a season for questioning our motivations and influences. Where do our loyalties and trusts lie? With Christ and his Church? With the rapidly de-Christianizing secular world? John's "baptism of repentance" can still be received before Christmas in its fullest sacramental form through Reconciliation. Now is our chance to grasp hold of the mercy of God in preparation for the coming of his Son. Gaudete! Rejoice in his mercy!