Guardini on John the Baptist

Romano Guardini has an interesting gloss on the life of John the Baptist in his masterpiece, The Lord. When in prison, John sent a messenger to Jesus with the question “Art thou he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Mt 11:3) Jesus asked the messenger to “report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed . . . etc.” Then he  adds “And blessed is he who is not scandalized in me.”
Guardini has us consider the situation of the Baptist: “He lies in prison, a powerless victim of wretched paltriness and fully aware of the death threatening him from Herodias’ hatred. Must not the knowledge of his own greatness have revolted against the apparent senselessness of it all? Surely his darkest hour came then, and with them danger of rebellion and doubt. Can he who allows such things to happen to his servants really be the Messiah.” (p. 29)
And in light of his death, Guardini adds “The greatest of all prophets, the greatest of all mankind, destroyed by the hatred of a sinful woman and the weakness of a degenerate little tyrant!” (27) I ask, what “man born of woman” would not cry out at such injustice; truth is a weak reed against the arbitrary monsters of the thrones. Must one begin to burn with anger when the unrighteous appear so secure in their abode? (“who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”).
Is this why John needed the gentle warning from Jesus concerning scandal?
Guardini reminds us that the prophets are “Nothing in themselves, they are mere instruments of the force that rules them, parts in the mystery of that active divine guidance operating within the nation. John is one of these, the last of the line.” But the line of prophets were always subjected to a height and a depth: “Now they are elevated to the summits of power and illumination, now flung back into impotency and darkness, according to the Spirit’s will. One moment they are filled with superhuman greatness; the next they are humbled below the measure of human respect.” (22)
Guardini says, do not imagine that the illumination of a prophet is a fixed thing, “as though he had only to behold, once, in order to know without wavering forever after . . .  in reality even a prophet’s life is shaken by all storms and saddled with all weakness.”
“Can he who allows such things to happen to his servants really be the Messiah?”
This is why Jesus would say to John to take no scandal. “Into the depths of John’s lowest hour then would Jesus’ word have been spoken: ‘Blessed is he who is not scandalized in me.’ The Lord knows his herald; knows his need. The message sent by the mouth of his uncomprehending disciples into the darkness of the dungeon is a divine message. John understood.”
Recall that he would later tell his own disciples “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II picks up on this theme of “the profound realism which inspired Jesus in dealing with His apostles. He did not prepare for them for easy success. He spoke clearly, He spoke of the persecutions that awaited those who would believe in Him.” (“A Minority by the Year 2000?”, p. 103) Pope John Paul II continues — the Gospel does not promise easy success or a comfortable life; it makes great demands, but it is a great promise. A promise that is a paradox — to find life one must lose life. The promise of victory through faith.
“The least in the Kingdom is greater than he.” We are greater because we have heard the witnesses to the victory of Easter — the women at the tomb, Peter and John who raced to the tomb, the disciples at Emmaus, the apostles in the upper room; and yet, and yet we are still scandalized at the demands of the Gospel, at the stark wood of the cross. So I think what special grace was given to John the Baptist in the jail cell to have understood and to have hailed the Lamb from afar. And grace awaits us this Lent to follow Jesus to Jerusalem and perhaps understand this once that the Son of man must suffer . . .

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