Nm 24:2-7,15-17a; 25; Psalm 4,5ab,6,7bc,8,9; Mt 21:23-27
Saint John of the Cross is a doctor of the universal church. His teaching about prayer and the spiritual life is not reserved for Carmelites or other consecrated religious. He teaches the doctrine of the cross. This is the cross our Lord Jesus commands us to take up, each day. This teaching is for the good of any Christian, and it can lead anyone who is serious about prayer. As this mystic-reformer taught one of his spiritual disciples: “Seek in reading, knock in meditation, and find in contemplation.” This is a quick synopsis of lectio divina. Indeed, the Book of Psalms is an inspiration for anyone who reads, knocks, and finds. As today’s Psalm teaches, those who are humble enough to be taught, how to know the truth and the way to live that truth. So in all honestly they ask, “teach me oh God my Savior.” The Divine Teacher is kind and full of compassion, and his goodness is beyond measure. The LORD shows sinners the way. Indeed, the Divine Teacher guides the humble in the ways of prayer and holiness. Balaam, son of Beor, was slow to learn, yet his struggle with the truth of God’s favor for Jacob, is a lesson for all of us. Balaam’s donkey was able to see the Angel of the LORD, and he spoke in warning to his master. Sometimes we are slow to understand and quite startled to hear the truth from those who appear to be deaf and dumb. The Gospel also reminds us that those who should know the truth, like priests and elders, are often the last to listen and the first to hesitate with any kind of openness to the authority of those who speak the truth, that can alone set us free. Such liberation is one of the Advent gifts that help us prepare for the Lord’s Coming in the celebration of Christmas and into our heart of hearts.
Balaam was a prophet, but not a prophet of the God of Israel. Nevertheless, the Spirit of God came upon this “pagan seer.” Perhaps, the Spirit moved in him, because this prophet was a friend of the truth. He was humble and open to the truth. His eye was true and his sight was clear. His vision was enraptured and his eyes were unveiled. He beheld the tents of Jacob, multiplied from ages and generations of descendants; he saw the truth of God’s favor for his chosen one Israel, the father of twelve sons and many nations. These tents were like gardens beside a stream. These tents were the holy place from which the King, who belongs to the Most High, would come. This future king of Glory is seen in a vision with eyes unveiled. Balaam beheld the future and glorious Christ with eyes enraptured and sight unveiled. He saw him present, yet still in the future. He beheld him close, yet still not near. Indeed, a star shall advance from Jacob and a staff shall rise from Israel. These two metaphors point forward to the Good Shepard, who would carry the staff of power, the Holy Cross, and to the Wise Men, who would follow a bright and mobile heavenly light to Bethlehem. As one mystic wrote about another, as Father Thomas Merton wrote about Saint John of the Cross, the mystery of darkness and light are so united by love that they seem to be only one mystery. Such is the darkness of suffering and the brightness of glory united in the love of Christ that the truth of one can only be seen in the other.
Those in power ask the questions, and those spoken to, respond. The chief priests and the elders were curious about the identity of the Lord Jesus. Not curious enough to follow him, or even listen to him, but eager enough to ask him to explain himself. They didn’t pay much attention to the Lord Jesus until his teaching seriously challenged their authority. They wanted to know whence the Lord Jesus received his authority. They demanded that he explain himself so that they could understand him and his boldness. In a rhetorical twist the Lord Jesus agreed to explain himself when they explained themselves and their relationship with the ministry of his predecessor, Saint John the Baptist. In effect the Lord Jesus asked them, what do you in the authority of your teaching office have to say about the ministry of Saint John? If they admitted that The Baptist was truly the Voice of God speaking to the People of God after so many years of silence, then he could say: “I am the Word about whom that Voice was speaking.” If they denied the ministry of Saint John the Baptist, they would clearly jeopardize their popularity among the people who recognized the Voice of God in the preaching of John. Many followed Saint John into the Jordan River to signify their repentance and expectancy for the Coming of the Lord. Since they did not, as a group, affirm the prophetic teaching of John the Baptist, they have nothing to say about the authenticity of the preaching of the Lord Jesus. Saint John of the Cross in his poetry, prose, and graphic art still has an authentic witness to the Lord Jesus. Indeed, his bold witness to the summons of the Lord to holiness is built upon his love for Christ and His Cross. This love is proven by his wiliness to suffer rejection like the Lord Jesus and to die abandoned and in utter obscurity. Only when we love the Cross of Christ will we give authentic witness to the mystery of the way, the truth and the life of the Word Made Flesh and dwelling among us.