Meeting in the Wilderness
Second Sunday of Advent (B) | Fr Benedict Jonak ponders the wilderness and loneliness of the human heart.
“Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Why does the Lord sent his prophet to cry in the wilderness? Is there anyone to hear him there? Would there not be more listeners if he wandered round cities and villages?
I am not quite sure what kind of wilderness John the Baptist frequented, for it is he who announced the presence of Christ among the people, and whether there were people there or not, but to consider the wilderness in itself as a place when we meet God seems to me a helpful way into this Advent Gospel.
Our understanding of the wilderness tends to be either romantic: influenced perhaps by the stories of travelers across the middle eastern deserts such as Lawrence of Arabia; or magical – we see the desert as an other-worldly place where strange things might happen like in F. Herbert’s Dune. Or, lastly, heroic, that is to say, we see the wilderness as a place where man is alone and faces the hostile world alone. The wilderness is a place that tests what we are really made of, an obstacle course that either makes you or breaks you.
You might object, saying that you certainly had not attempted to overcome the world. But if it is not so much the world in its totality that you try to shoulder as it is, perhaps, the weight of human nature – your very own – which might feel like a burden already too great. And so you feel like an anonymous hero – because to be a hero is to be on your own, quietly carrying your burden. Perhaps you tried to cry out, but no one listens, as people are not interested to hear. You are truly in the most cruel of wildernesses: surrounded by plenty of people but nevertheless very lonely.
Whichever wilderness you face, whether with people around you or without, the Lord is proclaiming today his glorious entry into that very world. In the liturgy of our Order (before the reforms of the mid-16th century), like in many other ancient catholic rites, Advent began with a reading of Christ’s glorious entry into the holy city, Jerusalem – that very same reading that we have on Palm Sunday. “Prepare the way for the Lord!” and “Hosanna to the Son of David!”: the two definitely go together, and they point out the most important two things about the wilderness, whether it is populated or not.
The first is that the Lord is there. The purple robes of the king who rides into Jerusalem are already recognizable in the royal purple of Advent. The Lord is present here already! The wilderness is a place of meeting with the Lord, not a place designed to crush you. The Day of the Lord, the Parousia – will reveal the fullness of his presence to us in his glorified and risen body, but he is present to us in the Holy Spirit already. He is alive and reigning!
The second is that you have to engage with the wilderness, such as was given to you. Do not just watch it, as if from the outside, as in a theatre. “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? Why then did you go out?” If you went out to contemplate your strengths or to wallow in your weaknesses, remember that this is not the main point of the wilderness. What is at the heart of it is that you are in fact not alone, whether weak or strong – the Lord is with you. You go out into the wilderness then so that he may enter in and meet with you. The Key of David, Root of Jesse, Emmanuel – our Rising Sun – has already illumined the darkness and the loneliness of all wildernesses, including that of the human heart.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of sculpture above the entrance of the Franciscan church in Dubrovnik.