11 December [Third Sunday of Advent]
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me." As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.' Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
John the Baptist is almost a New Testament figure; he is a kind of honorary member of the new community. The Church does not refer to Isaiah or Jeremiah or any of the great prophets as ‘Saint’, but we call John ‘Saint John the Baptist’. Yet, as Jesus said to the crowd, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Do you feel greater than John the Baptist? Few in history could equal him for fire and passion. Jesus said of him, equivalently, that he was the greatest man who ever lived. But membership of the new community does not depend, it seems, on the qualities that John had to such an exceptional degree. What does it depend on, then?
John's ‘persona’ was 100% adult male; he was the original Iron John, hard and demanding. He lived on the edge of society, not integrated with it and perhaps not integrated in himself. There are many like him, there always have been. It is a straightforward, two-dimensional image, lacking in depth and humour. The essential missing ingredient is paradox. There are Christian preachers (especially on TV) whose persona is exactly John’s.
Kierkegaard (1813-1855) identified three stages in the spiritual development of a human being: the aesthetic, the moral, and the spiritual. The first (the stage of beautiful thoughts and feelings) runs aground after a time, and you grow (probably through crisis) into the second, the stage of responsibility and moral awareness. But after struggling here a long time you come to know your own weakness and the ambiguity of your motives; you learn that it is impossible to be a moral person if you are attempting only to be a moral person. You realise that your religion has become self-righteous, judgmental, resentful, even hypocritical. This crisis opens you to deeper spiritual reality. When you can no longer disguise your failure, you learn the wisdom of failure; you learn the meaning of the Cross of Christ. God has to come to you from beyond all your efforts.
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