By Father Kyle
Some of my best memories are vacations that my family has taken over the years, the times when we all got together and went to spend a week at the Outer Banks in North Carolina, Lake Hartwell in South Carolina, the Great Smokey Mountains in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and the Grand Canyon and Sedona in Arizona. These have all been wonderful family reunions for us, and even though we have sometimes wandered into the hustle and bustle of tourist attractions, we have always sought out locations away from the urban jungle. When people go on vacations to various places, they often look for locations that are known for their natural scenery, places where they can escape from the noise and business of city-life for a while. Many people yearn for the peacefulness of sitting on the beach watching the vast ocean, sitting on the deck of a lodge and gazing upon the majestic mountains, admiring the beauty of a desert landscape, or looking at the constellations of stars in a clear night sky. Away from all the distractions in our daily lives, we are better able to listen to the Lord, who is always speaking to us. Whether it is in a literal desert or a desert in the broader sense of being immersed in the beauty of nature, we are better able to sense His work in us and among us.
There is always a lot more going on in towns and cities, in the places where many people live and work on a daily basis, and yet the wilderness was the privileged place for God’s activity in much of Sacred Scripture. It was often in the wilderness where the Lord’s most important interactions with His people took place. Granted, in the Old Testament, particularly throughout the exodus from Egypt, the wilderness was a place of trial and testing, where Israel was punished for their stubbornness of heart and their rebellion towards God. The first generation of Israelites was doomed to wander the desert for forty years and never saw the Promised Land, but the wilderness was also the place where God drew Israel closer to Himself. It was a place where the people turned away from God by turning against Moses and giving in to idol worship, like they did with the Golden Calf, but it was also the place where the Lord revealed Himself to them, entered into a covenant with them, and gave them the Law.
In the New Testament, it was the place where Jesus was tempted by the devil, but it was also the place where He retreated to pray to His Father, the place where He often ministered to those in need, and the place where He multiplied the loaves and the fish for the crowds that followed Him. The wilderness, then, was at once a place of suffering and a place of deep intimacy with God. It was in the desert that John the Baptist proclaimed his baptism of repentance. We hear in today’s Gospel reading that many people throughout all Judea and from Jerusalem were going out to him there and being baptized by him in the Jordan River. More importantly, they were entering into a spiritual desert, turning away from all the sins that had cluttered their souls and their lives and seeking the Lord’s mercy. John himself lived the penitential life of a prophet, being clothed in camel hair and living on locusts and wild honey. His life and his whole being were directed away from the lure of sin and the pleasures of the world to his mission of preparing the way for the Messiah. In this way, John the Baptist is a great teacher who shows us how to enter more deeply into this season of Advent.
To be prepared and ready to welcome Christ when He comes again, we must make more room for Him in our hearts and in our lives, but we can only do this if we enter into the spiritual wilderness, if we take time to get away from all our worldly distractions and rid ourselves of all the stuff that hinders us from really listening to God, from knowing Him and ourselves. As was true for John the Baptist, the Lord can do amazing things through us and for us, but only if we empty ourselves of all the baggage that weighs us down, all the grudges and all the secret sins that we try to hide or ignore. We must forsake the materialism and consumerism of our culture that cloud our vision of the deeper meaning of life. In silence and prayer, we must look at ourselves in the mirror, facing all our sins and weaknesses for what they are and realizing our total dependence on the Lord for everything. We must set aside the illusion that we can be perfectly content in this life, as if this life could ever satisfy our deepest desires. We must realize and accept that there are many things in our lives that need to change, bad habits that we need to break, sinful occasions we need to avoid, and virtues in which we need to grow. Entering into this spiritual desert of the soul can be unsettling. Self-examination is not easy. Facing the truth about ourselves is not easy. Letting go of worldly comforts and securities is not easy, but entering this wilderness of the heart is exactly how we can have a really meaningful, fruitful Advent and truly encounter the Lord. In the silence and beauty of this desert, we will be better able to sense the Lord’s presence and work in our lives, as we wait and watch for His return.