There is a story, I once heard, that concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, but as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth century, all of its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house . . . the abbot and four others, all of them, over seventy in age . . . clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again,” they would whisper to each other.
As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if he could offer any advice that might save the monastery. And so he set out to visit the Rabbi. The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me. . . no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”
“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that God has blessed one from among you to do a great thing”.
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did the rabbi say?”
“He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say. . . just as I was leaving—it was something cryptic—was that God has blessed one from among us to do a great thing. I don’t know what he meant.”
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. There is one of us chosen by God? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case . . . which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Eldred! Eldred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Eldred is virtually always right. Often, very right! Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Eldred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him most. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the one. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary man. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the one? O God, not me. I couldn’t be chosen by You, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the one who God had chosen. And . . . on the off chance that each monk himself might be the one, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect. . . .
Because the forest in which the monastery was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, and to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And then . . . their friends brought their friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And then. . . yet another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.
This is a story about the relationship between one’s faith and one’s good works. Many grow up with the thought that by good works, that is by living a good life, that they are saved by what they have done. This of course is not a Christian belief but it is a theory prevalent today by those who do not practice any particular religion but have it in the their hearts that, if there is a God, this (i.e. good works and a good life) is what God expects.
Then there are those who believe that it is through an abiding faith that we are set free and welcomed into the kingdom. After all, did not all of the healings that Jesus performed come as a result of personal faith . . . and is it not by faith that we are saved?
In the book of James there is written a cryptic verse that reads . . . ‘Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” If you believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?
The monks in our story today had faith . . . after all they were monks . . . they believed in God, but they were dying because somewhere along the way they had lost something, something important that once set them apart from the world. Something that the world desires more than anything . . . even more than gold. They had lost the primary work that is required of a believer; that of bringing hope into a darkened world.
If faith can be compared to a brilliant sun shining on the dawn of a new day . . . then works is the radiant warmth and light that is generated by it. Jesus tells us that no one lights a candle and then hides it under a basket . . . no, he puts in a lampstand to give light to the entire household . . . and so should all who have faith not hide out in our homes and churches waiting for the coming of Christ . . . but instead we should be actively working and searching the world over for places and people in which to instill hope through the gifts that God has given us.
The monastery, in the end, began to grow because people now began to sense the faith that the Monks had once hidden within their walls. By the simple act of being kind to each other, they infused into their environment the prophetic message of faith for all to see and experience. This infusion of hope into a dying world is what the Universal Church of Jesus Christ is all about . . . people helping God’s people with the aid of prophetic message and the Holy Spirit. But it is not without risk.
The gospel story today about John the Baptist is a prophetic message that changed the lives of those who heard it. There were many prophets in Biblical times, just as there are many prophets even in our own times. Jesus called John the Baptist the greatest of them. Unfortunately, most (if not all the prophets) in the Bible were killed because of what they said. A prophet who insulted a King did not stand much of a chance for a long life and a quiet retirement. Like John, (who was beheaded for what he said), the prophets were summarily slaughtered and executed because of their inclinations to bad tidings. But for those who listened to their words, they found peace and understanding and God’s blessing.
How many of us have been given the mantle of a prophet? And how many of us, have been persecuted because of it?
John the Baptist came into our world to announce the coming of the Messiah. Many listened to his words and received healing and forgiveness and new life through repentance. His words are just as valid today and for us as they were 2000 years ago. During this Advent Season, let’s try to be more open to God’s prophets as we go about our daily lives. Let’s listen to what the prophets are telling us about our lives and about our culture as we await a new heaven and a new earth at the Advent of Our Lord. And as we go about our week . . . “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven”. Amen