Religious people can be odd. Saints can be downright strange. If there are any contemporary saints trending on Twitter or YouTube, it is more likely because of the weird things they say and do than in spite of them.
During the third week in Advent Season, the Common Lectionary’s Gospel readings are all about John the Baptist, whose life is celebrated each year in preparation for Christmas. If one of the qualifying marks of sainthood is strangeness – and such a case could be made – John must be at the head of the class.
He was born to aged parents. Were his birth to occur today, we would call it a miracle of modern science. When it occurred, friends and family simply called it a miracle. At some point, John moved from his Judean countryside home to the rugged desert between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. His diet was odd – he ate locusts and honey. His wardrobe was odd – he wore camel hair clothing. His life work was odd – he dunked people in the Jordan River for the forgiveness of sins.
John’s was a strange life and also a strange death. When he stuck his prophetic nose into the king’s so-called private affairs, the king cut it off. Well, not just his nose but his whole head. The king only did this because his stepdaughter – at her mother’s request – put him up to it.
Even John’s burial was unusual. His grieving friends had to go to the authorities – not the coroner but (quite possibly) the executioner – to request his body. As far as we know that body still rests in some ancient grave, absent its blessed head.
Why is this man, so odd in life and in death, renowned among Christians? He is recognized for his special connection with God. He was spiritual from birth. He received and recognized a calling early in life. He had remarkable spiritual discernment, hearing God speak to him and understanding what he said. He possessed vibrant faith.
He was also extraordinarily courageous. It takes courage to be different. It takes courage to speak against injustice to those who are unjust. John fearlessly confronted oppressors. It takes courage to speak truth to power. John did not hesitate to call out even the king himself.
John the Baptist is rightly celebrated for his uncommon humility. For a while, John was the most talked about man in the country. He was a first century superstar, an A-lister, a household name. He had an impressive number of followers long before Twitter.
That kind of thing can go to a person’s head. It is a narcotic of sorts. Take it away, and a person can go through withdrawals. But not John.
At the height of John’s popularity, a new figure burst on the scene. He took John’s message, expanded on it, and drew even larger crowds. John’s deputies complained to their leader that the new guy was syphoning off their audience. Presumably, they wanted John to sanction some new business plan for regaining market share.
Instead, John said to them (my paraphrase): “I told you that I was only the opening act. He must increase. I must decrease – which is just what makes me happy!”
Like all the great saints, John faced obstacles. He was arrested, incarcerated, and treated as a political prisoner. He was nevertheless content, for he had completed his calling to prepare the way for the true king. The man who would not be king followed the would-be king’s – that is, Jesus’s – progress from his prison cell. And that’s when he began to experience doubts.
Why was Jesus not doing the kinds of things kings do? Had John been mistaken? What if he had prepared the way for the wrong person? Thrown into doubt, he sent a message to Jesus asking if he really was “the one.” Even superstar saints sometimes doubt.
Jesus sent back an affirmative answer. Yes, he was the one. What happened next is awe-inspiring. Fully aware of John’s doubts, Jesus offered this assessment: “Of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist.”
John was a humble, strange, struggling man. He was also preeminent among the heroes of the faith.
(First published by Gannet)