Memorial of Saint John of the Cross, priest and doctor of the Church, Monday in the 3rd Week of Advent: Numbers 24:2-7, 15-17a, Matthew 21:23-27.
Today we celebrate the memorial of one of our great mystics and doctors of the Church, St. John of the Cross. He cultivated an intense personal and internal relationship with God and wrote beautifully on the Divine Essence as well as the paradoxes he experienced in having God so close yet so immensely far and silent. I find that today’s readings, in all their seeming obscurity, help us explore alongside St. John of the Cross the loudness of truth that God so often presents to us in His silence.
The first thing I thought about the first reading was, “wait, who is this Balaam, son of Beor?” I had to read up on him, and it turns out he was a non-Jewish seer/prophet, well-known throughout the Levant, graced with the actual truth and Word of our Lord. He lived when the Israelites were finishing their 40 year desert wandering and having great military successes, winning their place in the region. They had defeated Sihon, King of the Amorites and Og, King of Bashan, and so the other rulers in the region were getting very nervous. Balak, King of Moab, sends for Balaam, asking him to curse the Israelites. Over three chapters in the Book of Numbers, we read this interesting story about Balaam, who seven times lives up to his words: “Although Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God, to do less or more” (Nm 22:18). There is an interesting sequence of events where God tells Balaam not join Balak and curse the Israelites because they are blessed, and Balaam sends back Balak’s men. When Balak sends messengers a second time, Balaam waits for God’s instructions and God says he can go as long as he will “do only what I tell you to do” (Nm 22:20). But next God sends an angel apparently to stop Balaam on his journey, who tells him “I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me” (Nm 22:32). What actually ensues is a physical resistance battle between Balaam and his mule, who is trying to obey the angel Balaam doesn’t see. Finally, the angel admits him passage, saying, “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak” (Nm 22:35). Indeed, over the course of seven prophecies in the presence of King Balak, Balaam has nothing but praise for Israel, even prophecy of their Messiah.
What to make of this curious treatment of the Gentile prophet? I think the difficulties he encounters speak not to a mercurial God (this is contrary to God’s nature, and we must read these episodes accordingly) but an internal struggle that Balaam has with hearing God’s truth and setting out on a mission contrary to this truth. He is going in service to an enemy of God’s Chosen People; he has yoked himself, as it were, to an evil force contrary to God. He is the example of someone who is trying to serve two masters at once, which is never tenable. So why does God permit him to go on this mission for Balak? Perhaps so he can provide all of us who read the scriptures an example and valuable lesson. We learn that leading such a life is a tortuous process, where both of your masters are unhappy and unfulfilled with your service. We also learn that in the end, the Lord our God will always be vindicated and triumph. This leads us to today’s reading.
We hear of Balaam’s praise of Israel and prophecy of the Messiah. What we don’t hear is the consternation of his earthly master, Balak: “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but now you have done nothing but bless them.” Balaam answered, “Must I not take care to say what the Lord puts into my mouth?” (Nm 23:11-12). It seems that Balaam is completely at the mercy of God’s will, even with an angry earthly king breathing down his neck. It’s difficult to parse whether Balaam is concerned for his own safety here or wishes he could just say something to please Balak. We do hear that when it comes time for him to prophesy, “the spirit of God came upon him, and he gave voice to his oracle.” Things truly seem out of his hands. To the Jews, this was proof that even Gentile prophets could not disobey the overwhelming power of the God of Abraham. God’s truth is undeniable to those who are graced to receive it.
One last thought on the first reading: it is remarkable that even this early in the Jewish tradition, before they have crossed the Jordan in their military might, before they have built Jerusalem and the great temple, we hear a prophecy of the future Messiah: “I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel.” Most translations actually translate “staff” as “scepter.” The Hebrew word שֵׁ֙בֶט֙ (shebet) is alternatively translated as rod, scepter, staff, or tribe; it essentially means a ruling authority. So Balaam gives us a very Advent-sounding prophecy of a star that rises and a new reign arising from Israel. We Christians clearly interpret this to be Jesus, the Morning Star, and the Reign of Christ.
In the gospel reading, the question of shebet seems to come up again. The Jews are seeing Balaam’s prophecy come true in their time: a shebet has arisen from Israel in the form of this man Jesus. Remember, the Book of Numbers is the fourth of the five books of the Torah, their most sacred texts. The books of the prophets are also replete with references to the Messiah that seem to be fulfilled in Jesus as well — Jesus’s works and words are striking a chord deep in the Jewish psyche and memory. Thus, “the chief priests and the elders of the people approached him as he was teaching and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?'” Jesus’s reply is a counter-question that points back to the voice crying out in the wilderness, John the Baptist. As we reflected yesterday, he is the ultimate testament to Christ’s divinity as he fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of the announcement of the Messiah. Jesus has come for those who long for God, who have listened to John and prepared a way for the Lord in their hearts. He is asking the chief priests and elders if they have prepared the way.
Instead of answering him clearly, we see exactly the type of tortured mentality we encountered with Balaam. They are serving a worldly master — their fears of the crowd and their political machinations — while attempting to encounter God’s truth. This is untenable, as Balaam showed us so long ago. They have clearly not prepared the way for the Lord in their hearts. They are not filled with the burning yearning for God, otherwise they would see Christ for who He is. Jesus cannot invite them to the wedding feast of the Lord while they vacillate between the pull of the world and the pull of God. He brings not peace but the sword to people like this (cf. Mt 10:34) — they must choose God or the world, not both. And there are consequences.
Conversely, St. John of the Cross is a master of preparing the way. If I had to imagine his heart in Isaiah’s terms, I would imagine a broad plain, as fertile as it gets, blossoming with the fruits of God’s Word and grace. This master of contemplation writes extensively on encountering God, and a key to understanding St. John of the Cross is to understand his conception of God’s omnipresence and simultaneous indwelling in our souls. At the risk of tackling something that is difficult in just a short amount of space, I want to quickly explore this because it can shed light on today’s readings’ tortured figures.
One theological point that we must understand before encountering St. John of the Cross is this: God is immense and omnipresent (not able to be pinned down to a specific “location”) but also makes Himself present to our souls in a special, intimate way through His grace. Fr. Donald F. Haggerty writes in Faith and Reason (Fall 1991 issue) a nice primer on the theological intricacies of St. John of the Cross. He writes, “God inhabiting the soul can now become the intimate object of a knowledge and love that unites the soul with God in the bond of grace. The divine Persons give themselves to the soul so that it might possess them in a real and substantial manner.” This means that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves! (Our mind tries to mediate with our soul whereas He has direct presence with our soul). Haggerty continues: “Any notion of a distant or impersonal God dissolves when He is understood to be the Guest of one’s own flesh. … Paradoxically it would seem, [St. John observes that] the more God is experienced as the source of one’s own life of the spirit, the more powerfully transcendent, incomprehensible, and inaccessible His divinity becomes.” This makes sense to me as a novice to contemplation; the more I consider how God and grace might exist within, without and through me, the more I realize how fantastically other He is, how I would love to know Him better but how impossible that seems, how communion with Him is indescribable, literally silent because my words as a created being fall so short of the type of communication that is God in my soul.
This is where we pick up St. John of the Cross. He has so many amazing nuggets in his prose. Here’s one that’s made-to-order for Advent: “What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetite and with our tongue, for the language he best hears is silent love.” I love this idea of finding a language by which we can communicate with God because this is striving to bring the mind in concert with what the soul is able to experience without mediation. And here we have St. John’s recipe: silencing our worldly appetites and our tongue; communicating in silent love. Whew! If only I could still the craziness of my media-soaked head enough to get there. Thank God for retreats at Benedictine monasteries! In any case, it does seem that this is something the penitential Advent season calls us to try: more silence, darkness lit by three (next week, four) candles, and love for our God that fills our hearts and souls.
Finally, I’d like to just reflect back on the issues the figures in today’s readings encounter. Balaam does communicate with God and hear His truth — he must have a solid fear of God — but the inability to silence the world and his desires seems to be his downfall. The chief priests as well seem very far from a contemplative experience of God. They have no stillness in their souls, no honest response to the indwelling of God that might help them recognize the very presence of God in their midst.
It’s a great challenge for us. Thankfully we have our entire lives to grow into this communication of silent love so that we can become more and more receptive to God’s truth within and without.