Every Advent we are presented with one of the most perplexing figures in the entire Bible—John the Baptist. He is totally unorthodox. Orthodoxy in general, similar to Church orthodoxy, conjures up words like devout, structured, true blue, predictable, or traditional. An unorthodox person, however, would be described as unconventional, radical, off-centered, avant-garde or original. John the Baptist is definitely unorthodox even though he was born into an orthodox world. John the Baptist’s father was Zechariah, a well-respected priest. Following orthodox rules and being a traditional priest, Zechariah naturally wanted to name his son after himself. But the angel of the Lord had already told Elizabeth that her son was to be called John, not Zechariah. This was the first indication that John the Baptist was going to be an unorthodox child and, later, an unorthodox preacher.
Zechariah was a priest and since he belonged to the priestly class, this automatically made his son, John, a priest as well. Many of the priests living in the city of Jerusalem were aristocrats living in luxury compared to the poor priests living in the countryside (Albert County). These aristocratic priests do not go to the desert themselves but send delegates, or as I like to call them “flunkies” to interrogate John with questions like “Who are you?” and “Why are you baptizing?” to make sure everything John said was orthodox. We were told in last Sunday’s gospel that all the people in Jerusalem were going out to John in the wilderness to be baptized. Obviously, John was living something special in his life that attracted people away from their own priests in the city of Jerusalem.
I told you, John the Baptist was unorthodox. He dressed in camel’s hair and ate grasshoppers. Personally, I gave up eating grasshoppers long ago, but I might be tempted again if I got a chocolate fondue for Christmas. So, we know something about orthodoxy. It is about never varying from the rules in your thoughts and in your words. It is about believing a creed in your head and never letting it go. There is another word you may not be too familiar with; it is called orthopraxy. If orthodoxy is right or correct belief, then orthopraxy is right or correct living.
Whenever the Church split, like the big split in 1054 between the Eastern Church and ourselves in the Western Church (Roman Catholic Church), it was always due to a fight over orthodoxy; it was always a fight over words. One side would accuse the other side of not believing in the correct way or not using the right words. When orthodoxy becomes too narrowly defined, like Fundamentalism, there is no room for dialogue. Someone has to get set straight, or kicked out, or, in extreme cases, killed because they are considered heretics or not correct believers. Maybe that is part of the reason why we have over 40,000 Christian denominations in the United States alone.
Fr. Richard Rohr reminds us that many Christians were burned at the stake by other “Christians” because of orthodoxy…they didn’t believe in the right way, and so, they had to be eliminated. But he also points out, that in the history of the Church, no one was ever burned at the stake for questionable orthopraxy, that is, no one was ever condemned because they neglected to take care of widows and orphans. Orthodoxy always looks for correct thoughts and enforcement of those correct thoughts…as if Jesus came to earth to enforce ideas.
John the Baptist was unorthodox and wanted to live like the unorthodox, the poor, the lonely, the forgotten, the destitute, and not like the rich priests who lived in the city. When you think of the saints of the Church, they were all unorthodox on some level. Many of them were condemned by the Church until they were made saints hundreds of years later when they were safely buried in the ground.
The Our Father is a prayer of the unorthodox, the poor. In it we say, “Give us this day, our daily bread” and “forgive us our debts as we forgive the debts of others.” These phrases on daily bread and debts are clearly a prayer given to the poor. Bread and debts, think about it, are the daily preoccupation of the poor their entire lives. The poor cannot store up bread for tomorrow. And the poor are always in debt wondering how they will pay their essential bills. We may not consider ourselves “poor,” but we still need to pray the Our Father often and sincerely. It is a prayer of charity and justice. Charity moves us toward this particular man, this particular woman, this particular child, this particular family in this particular situation simply because they are in need. Charity gives directly to the poor; justice, however, seeks to correct the structures that keep poverty going. Jesus asks us to do both.
In the winter of 1947, the Abbey Pierre, a modern apostle of mercy to the poor in Paris, found a young family on the streets homeless, almost frozen to death. He scooped them up and brought them back to his little dwelling, which was already filled with vagrants. He had no place to put them, so the Abbey Pierre went into the chapel, removed the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle, placed it upstairs in a cold, unheated attic, and then installed the family in the chapel to sleep. When his Dominican brothers expressed shock at such irreverence toward the Blessed Sacrament, the Abbey Pierre replied, “Jesus Christ is not cold in the Eucharist, but He is cold in the body of a little child.”
Correct orthodoxy, correct beliefs, keep us in the head and keep us arguing about whose ideas are the best. Correct orthopraxy, correct living, moves us towards the needy. One keeps you in the safety of the city, the other dares you to hear the voice that cries out in the wilderness.
Fr. Phil Mulligan