Sometimes an extreme example is needed to restore the equilibrium to a society, a country, or even a person. And that moment of extreme example, action, behavior, sacrifice is rarely embraced or accepted by those who don’t want the restoration or don’t see that it’s even necessary.
You see, the whole of the History of the Church is filled with examples and saints who, if we simply just read their lives, come across as, well, frankly, crazy. In fact, this is so common that there is even a category of saints known as “holy fools.” There is a story of two such saints who lived on opposite sides of a bridge in two towns. There was a bit of rivalry and animosity between the citizens of the two towns, so the saints, in their love for their brothers, decided to act out the folly of the bitterness of the people. One saint would cross the bridge to the other side and the other saint would berate him and physically force him back to his own side. Then they switched roles and there would be a forcing back to the other town. So the saints conducted themselves to show how foolish the enmity and bitterness between the towns really was.
Of course, most of us will never be asked to provide that kind of example for our generation, but certainly some may.
Look at our Gospel Lesson for today in Luke 7:17-30. We will only quote verses 24-30, but I hope you read the whole passage:
When the messengers of John had gone, he began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are gorgeously appareled and live in luxury are in kings’ courts. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way before you.’ I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” When they heard this all the people and the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John; but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.
St. John the Baptist was the kind of saint that was an extreme example meant to shake the world, his generation from the stupor of a religion put on automatic pilot! Our Lord Jesus even says that “among those born of women none is greater than John.” Wow, high acknowledgement coming from the Son of God. And yet, look at what the Lord adds after this high praise. The Lord says “yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” The ministry of St. John was vital, important, significant, and worthy of eternal memory, and yet, those who are least in the kingdom of God are greater. What the Lord means here is that John’s ministry was meant to bring one era of prophets to a close and make way for the NEW era of God in the flesh come to not just destroy death, but to establish a New Community made up of everyone who will come and transform that disparate group of people with all their problems, hang ups, divisions, suspicions, and different languages and cultures into a NEW family that allow the Holy Spirit to make them one like the Father and the Son are One! No wonder this radical concept called for, and still calls for, extreme examples of devotion and piety to overcome the tug of mediocrity and conformity!
Today we are confronted with the extreme example of St. John the Baptist and offered a chance to embrace just a bit of the spiritual labor, the spiritual “ascesis” that makes the radical faithfulness of true communion with God and others possible. Are you ready to at least try? Can you take this opportunity to move even a bit toward a daily commitment to being faithful to this message of new life and eternal peace and joy? The disciplines of the Church offer us that kind of opportunity to be Orthodox on Purpose.