In the Wilderness
Second Sunday of Advent. Fr Robert Gay considers what it takes to survive in the desert.
The wilderness, that place mentioned time and again in today’s first reading and Gospel, is a tricky and hostile environment. Wilderness takes various forms depending where we are in the world, but it always a place of solitude, of few people. We often think of wilderness as big expanse, in which there is great emptiness, and a place which requires special knowledge and skills to survive in. It is the territory of the loner, the specialist – not to be taken lightly. It is the territory of one of the great Advent figures, St John the Baptist. He has what is necessary to survive, even to thrive in this hostile place.
Part of the trick of surviving in the wilderness is to understand that viewing such places as simply hostile is not completely accurate. In fact, even the most inhospitable wilderness, there is always life, and often in great abundance. For those who have the eyes to see and read the signs, and the patience to wait, observe and learn, even the desert can in fact be more like a city: for the abundance of life that it has, and what it can sustain, with its myriad of networks of interactions between creatures of all kinds.
I think that the true picture of the wilderness is important as we take further strides into the Advent season. The sense of being in a wilderness in Advent is surely not welcome since most of our lives have been thrown into a wilderness of sorts by the Coronavirus. Perhaps, though, this season is an oasis in that wilderness, and a time when we learn to live yet more by the special adaptations gifted to us by our faith.
Even in the wilderness, the good news is spoken, of the coming of the Saviour. And surely that cry of St John the Baptist, re-echoing the cry of the prophet Isaiah, is heard more clearly, more magnificently against that barren landscape. It is certainly heard more clearly against the wilderness we have all experienced in the last few months.
The centrality of repentance and forgiveness at the heart of his cry should help us to see that to live in the wilderness, weighed down by sin and not able to receive grace, is to live without the friendship of God. That is to live in the wilderness, the difficult terrain of life without what we need for flourishing as human beings. To flourish and thrive in such a landscape is to see and to embrace the ways in which God bestows the richness of his blessings on us.
So the first insight, the first specialist knowledge given to us in the wilderness is our great need for the Lord, but also the possibility of finding him present there. Next, we see our great need to cast aside anything which is contrary to life with him. St John the Baptist, our great guide to the wilderness, points us that way. And that insight should lead us to repentance, and to a desire for forgiveness of our sins. Having received that forgiveness, we should want to feast on the riches of grace that he has prepared for us in the wilderness. We should want to quench our thirst for God through his word. And we should want to feast and be nourished most of all by real presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. For those who can finally get back to Mass this weekend after a month’s enforced absence, that experience of receiving Our Lord again in Holy Communion will be something truly special.
As the days of Advent pass, we should think of this time as a time in the wilderness. But we should see this wilderness, not as a featureless desert, but as a place filled with the riches of grace, and a place where he can fit us by that grace to live ever more with and in the Lord.
Photo credit: katsrcool