Locked in jail and locked out of action. A man whose whole life was devoted to one particular cause. His mission was to announce the arrival of the Messiah, the almighty messenger from God, who was to come to purify the Chosen People of Israel and to defeat their enemies. John the Baptist had been carrying out that mission with fiery passion and unshakeable conviction. As we heard a week ago, his pronouncements were fierce and uncompromising. Finally, he pointed at Jesus and proclaimed him to be the Chosen One – and John’s mission was complete. Or so he thought. Jailed soon afterwards for rebuking the king, John heard some unsettling news. The man he’d proclaimed as the uncompromising judge and spiritual warrior proved to be nothing like the actuality of John’s announcements. Instead of crushing of the sinners and the imperfect he was meeting them, talking to them, eating with them and showing empathy and mercy rather than holy anger and zealous fury. Jesus was unlike the Messiah as announced by John.
That’s the context of today’s gospel. John is having profound doubts about Jesus. He’s not sure that Jesus really is the one John proclaimed as the Messiah. As John is not in a position to question Jesus himself, he sends his followers to Jesus to ask whether he is the One. If the man we call Saint John had doubts, why should we be any different?
When we look at Christendom or the Muslim world, one of the most distinctive and striking features is … division among the traditions. In the Buckie area alone we have at least 5 or 6 different Christian denominations; in the village of Fochabers there are 3. In Islam, there are two main factions, each hostile to the other, and quite a number of smaller groups and sects, most of them locked within themselves. The main reason for such division is the claim to have exclusive access to, and being infallibly right about, God and his message. Of course, such an assertion assumes that everyone else is wrong; hence the divisions and splits. In Christendom, we have only recently learned to talk to each other and to look for common ground, yet there’s still a hint of reserve or distrust lurking in people’s hearts. Islam seems to have quite a distance to cover to reach a similar concord.
One of the side-effects of such ascertained infallibility is a commonly held belief that doubts about the faith are a bad thing and a sign of spiritual weakness. Sometimes people list ‘doubts’ as sins while making their confessions. Many of us, particularly those of the older generation, were taught that we should not question our faith: that obedient and indisputable acceptance was the right attitude. But we do have doubts, we do have questions, and we do struggle to reconcile the beliefs we hold dear with the challenges and adversities of everyday life. We may try to deny or to suppress those doubts, but it doesn’t make them disappear or solve them. Let me tell you: ‘We do not need to be afraid of questions and doubts because they are the beginning of a path of knowledge and going deeper; one who does not ask questions cannot progress either in knowledge or in faith.’ OK, you may not trust me; I’m just another humanly fallible parish priest in a small provincial parish. But the words I’ve just said are a direct quotation from Pope Francis. And we Catholics believe that the Pope is an infallible chap. So, you can question my competence – and I’m fine with that. But you won’t argue with the Pope, will you?