THEME: The Dark Night of Saint John the Baptist.

BY: Fr. Anthony O. Ezeaputa, MA.


The Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally celebrated with a joyful tone due to its proximity to Christmas and, of course, the Second Coming of Christ. The nearness of this Sunday to these two great celebrations is cause for immense joy. As a result, this Sunday is also known as “Gaudete Sunday.”

The word “gaudete” (from the Latin words “gaudium,” “joy,” and “gaudeo,” “to rejoice or be glad”) is taken from the Entrance Antiphon of today’s Mass: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near” (Phil 4:4–5).

Violet or purple is the official liturgical color for the liturgical season of Advent because of its penitential nature—a liturgical season of prayer, repentance, and preparation for the birthday of the Savior. However, the liturgical color rose, which denotes joy, may still be used today because the Lord is nearby.

Our gospel reading (Matthew 11:2–11) is about the emotional questions that John the Baptist asks Jesus through the messengers he sends to him from Herod’s prison. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3). But this was the same John the Baptist who was calling people to repentance at the Jordan River and pointing to the Messiah when he saw him (John 1:29). What then happened to his confidence, conviction, and faith in Jesus Christ?


When God fails to meet our expectations of him or when it seems that he is absent, especially in the face of suffering, pain, and loss, it is normal for some people to begin to question God, wonder where he has gone, and even doubt their convictions, confidence, and faith in God. This is what is happening to John the Baptist.

John the Baptist learned from Herod’s prison about the wonders God was performing through Jesus Christ. But his unusual style of evangelization did not fit his image or expectations of the Messiah. John may have expected Jesus to be a mean judge and a ruthless dispenser of divine justice. Perhaps he expected Jesus to call down fire and burn the wicked (Malachi 3:2).

On the contrary, he heard that Jesus was meek and humble, that he emphasized forgiveness, and that he taught people to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them, including Herod and the Romans. He had heard that Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners, ate with them, and even accepted them as disciples.

These actions did not reflect John’s expectations of the Messiah. As a result, they forced him to ask about Jesus, “Is it really him?” and “Can this really be God’s will and actions?”

John was experiencing what spiritual theologians call “the dark night of the soul”—the long work of purification by means of which a soul prepares itself and is also passively prepared for advancement in the spiritual life. Saint John of the Cross calls this long process of purifying the senses and letting go of every human attachment that leads to “union of the human will with the divine will” “the dark night.”

If we monitor the natural movement of our senses, we will notice that they tend to occupy themselves with things that satisfy them: the sight appreciates beautiful things, the ear appreciates the harmony of sounds, the taste appreciates delicious meals, and the sense of smell appreciates the sweetness of fragrances. Moreover, we go out of our way to seek out such satisfactions because we enjoy them.

“The dark night of the soul” is based on the idea that practicing renunciation of our will and mortification of our senses, especially when it comes to things we naturally like, expect, like the Baptist, or want, is like putting our five senses into darkness. “The dark night of the soul” therefore challenges us to free ourselves from our many attachments to created things and false images of God, which bind and arrest our spiritual growth. This is what John the Baptist was going through in Herod’s prison.

“Dark night” is the stage in the spiritual life, particularly for those who have taken their spiritual life and journey seriously, when God deliberately withdraws spiritual delights and pleasures from them. He does this so that they will come to love him and accept his will just because he is God, not because of the great things he does, because he meets their images of him, or because of the satisfactions they get from praying and serving God.

It is inevitable for every child of God who prays or loves God and his neighbor to have days when she does not feel like praying and days when she feels like praying for two hours or more. Growth in the spiritual life occurs more when we do not feel like praying but nevertheless do so; when we have reasons to doubt God but believe in him; when we have reasons to give up on our vocations but continue because God has promised to be with us; and so on. These are “dark nights,” when God wants to teach us to love him just for being God and for no other reason.

So, Jesus’s response echoes the Baptist’s conviction and his expectations that will characterize the coming of the Messiah (Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10). Jesus tells the messengers of John to go and tell him that the blind can see again, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them (Matthew 11:5).

As the celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord is nearer, let us know that the challenges, pains, and sufferings we face in our spiritual lives may be opportunities to love and trust God more. They may be occasions for the growth in our spiritual life that we have been praying for. Remember this: “The Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives.” (Hebrews 12:6). “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say: Rejoice! Let your kindness be known to everyone. The Lord is near” (Phil 4:4–5).



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