. . . so that all may see and know,
may all observe and understand
that the hand of Yahweh has done this,
that the Holy One of Israel has created it.
Isaiah 41: 20
For all the prophets and the Law until John prophesied. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Whoever has ears, let him hear.
Matthew 11: 13-15
Today’s gospel from Matthew 11 is a difficult one. Matthew has drawn and adapted texts in such a way that we are left without understanding exactly where John the Baptist “fits” in the overall understanding of the kingdom of heaven. Interpreting the passage is made even more difficult by the identification of John with Elijah. In the tradition, Elijah is a forerunner of the kingdom, but it is a matter of debate about whether or not he is seen as a forerunner of the messiah. Matthew seems to acknowledge this difficulty by contextualizing his identification of John with “and if you are willing to accept it . . .”
What is required of us this Advent if we are to be numbered among those who, in the words of Isaiah, “see and know . . . observe and understand that the hand of Yahweh has done this, that the Holy One of Israel has created it.”? One of the great objections to religious faith is that it fosters an infantile dissociation from reality. It is claimed that the believer distorts reality in order to make the mystery of life “fit” into a simple narrative of religious belief. We have all cringed when a well-meaning person tells someone in grief that their suffering and loss is “God’s will,” or when a misplaced sunny optimism attempts to keep us from entering into and dealing with difficult circumstances. Today we are reminded that to come to “observe and understand” the action of God in life and to be “willing to accept” the deeper significance of the persons, events, and situations of life is no childish task and that it demands that we not “fit” life into our own ideas about its meaning.
This Advent, as every season of life, we await the Lord’s coming: in the silence, stillness, and peace, of course, but also in the sickness and suffering, the pain and the loss, the fear and anxiety that both surrounds us and is within us. To stay present to rather than to flee the pain, sorrow, and emptiness is always difficult. As enjoyable as this special time of year can be, we know that it can also be among the most difficult. For many, Christmastime is a most intense experience of who and what is now missing in their lives and of the inability to recover a joy that once arose spontaneously.
In his time, John the Baptist was a difficult and enigmatic figure. Those who personally encountered him and even the community that reflected on him in retrospect often did not exactly know what to make of him. Isn’t this true of much of our lives? Occasionally, we feel as if what we are living through makes perfect sense to our understanding of what it means to be “on the way,” but much, if not most, of the time, we are walk in the darkness of faith, hope, and love. The “acceptance” of which today’s gospel speaks is not a feeling or an act of cognition, but rather a transformation of the will. It is a tilting of our will toward a staying present in silence to our life and our world’s life as they are. It is remaining with what we don’t understand, with the darkness and emptiness that is within and around us, until the “vision of God” begins to show itself to us. This is not a vision of our own sight but rather an opening of our spiritual capacity to see with God’s vision. If we stay with and enter deeply enough the enigmatic that constitutes most of our experience, we may ever so slowly come to “observe and understand that the hand of Yahweh has done this.”
In Buddhist history the word silence corresponds to right view:
seeing impermanence, the truth that everything is appearing, disappearing, and changing from moment to moment.
Impermanence is not something you see objectively—it is something you taste directly. Then impermanence makes you silent, because impermanence is very quiet. That silence connects you with a deep sense of human value.
Silence is not just being silent. You are silent, but simultaneously there are many words, many explanations, and many representations there. Dynamic actions, both physical and mental, are there. In other words, silence is something deep and also very active. In Japanese the word for this silence is mokurai. Moku means “silence” and rai means “thunder.” So silence is quiet, but there is an enormous voice like thunder there.
The third characteristic of silence is devotion. Silence is full of devotion—your self-centered life is thrown away to wholeness. A whole life is characterized by commitment to love, wisdom, and prayer. Prayer is not something directed from a particular subject to a particular object with the expectation of a particular result. Prayer is egolessness supported by deep love for all beings—a profound aspiration extended to all lives. It is the very basic, very deep energy of life. We must take best care of this energy and extend ourselves fully and deeply toward it.
Dainin Katagiri, Each Moment is the Universe