The Advent Desert

A repost from last year about the figure of St. John the Baptist and the desert.

The second Sunday of Advent presents to us the figure of St. John the Baptist as the ‘voice’ which cries out in the desert. It is a solitary voice. However John knows that he is the one who prepares the way and continues with this certitude.In the Year of Faith opening Mass homily, Pope Benedict spoke of the “desertification” of the world, and of the rampant godlessness that surrounds us. “But it is in starting from the experience of this desert, from this void, that we can again discover the joy of believing, its vital importance for us, men and women. In the desert we rediscover the value of what is essential for living; thus in today’s world there are innumerable signs, often expressed implicitly or negatively, of the thirst for God, for the ultimate meaning of life. And in the desert people of faith are needed who, with their own lives, point out the way to the Promised Land and keep hope alive,” he said. The desert the Pope wishes for us is not a barren place, but rather a place of peacefulness, separated from the wild overindulgence of the rest of the world so that we can allow our hearts to become still and readied for Christ’s birth.

Over these days, I have been invited to reflect on the experience of the desert in my own life. Slowly, I am coming to realise that God can use our weakness as easily as our strength in order to accomplish His will. Much can be said about the desert experience. Often we can become bogged down with our solitude because it is actually loneliness and not necessarily ‘aloneness’. It can be hard to be alone and to know that we are alone. After sin, aloneness is no longer an experience only of solitude but also of deprivation. The human companionship which in the divine plan was the answer to man’s aloneness no longer suffices. Suffering too can be a desert experience, feeling alone and helpless, cut off from others who cannot know how much we suffer. Pain is often God’s megaphone. He whispers to us in our joys, speaks to us in our conscience, shouts to us in our pain. We can admit our poverty and recognise the gentle but firm love that waits, the joy that is seeking him precisely because pain can only seek love or death. It is the promise that the tears are not forever and that pain will be exchanged for joy. Our love, God-given though it may be, is usually mixed up with possessiveness and selfishness. It needs strengthening and purifying and the desert is the place where this can happen. You know the saying "you can run from the world, even run from the devil, but you can never run from yourself." And it’s interesting to note that the best stranger we can meet in life is one’s self. When God is first in our hearts, all other loves are in order and find their rightful place. Like a skilled surgeon, God may have to hurt us, but He will never harm us. There is only one way forward, that of acceptance. Acceptance where we can turn loneliness into solitude and solitude into prayer.

During Advent, we long for his coming, and our hearts feel empty as we move through the desert weeks before Christmas. It’s in this void that we can regain the joyfulness of our faith and rediscover the only thing that truly matters — God. As Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, we must become people of hope, and through our own living and examples, point the way to the Promised Land. What better time than Advent to exemplify and embody hope in the Resurrection and lead others to the promised land of heaven?

One of my favorite verses in the Bible can be found in Song of Songs 8:5, in which we see God’s ultimate purpose in bringing those whom He loves into the desert. In this particular book, we read as follows: "Who is this coming up from the desert, leaning upon her lover?" Moses entered the burning crucible of the desert confident, self-reliant, and wholly self-assured. He entered that desert full of self with his will intact, and his dependence completely on himself. By the time he was through in that desert, he came out trusting in his God, living for his God, and leaning on his God. May we too yield our lives to Christ in that same desert.  May God’s grace be upon us in our appointed seasons in the desert, that we might yield and be completely transformed by the power of His Holy Spirit. May we emerge from the wilderness so completely transformed by Heaven that those around us, even our closest friends and relatives, will scarcely recognize us, and will say to one another, "Who is this? Who is this coming up from the desert....... leaning on her Lover?"