what did you go out to the desert to see?


This is the second week in a row that the church is doing this to us: what seems like good news is in the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, and the harsh stuff is in the Gospel reading. And right in between the two is the patience of James. It’s Gaudete Sunday, the Latin word for “Rejoice!” a word that is in the official entrance antiphon of the liturgy––Gaudete in Domino semper: Dominus proper est!––as well as in the second readings from the Letters to the Thessalonians and the Philippians in Years B & C, but this year instead, we don’t necessarily get the giddy rejoicing. We are invited into the sober waiting of the Letter to James: “Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.”

Remember that we are here at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. John has been preparing for that––Jesus’ earthly ministry––, not for Jesus’ birth. So here in the middle of Advent the Church in her liturgical readings is asking us to re-examine our commitment to discipleship. John at this point in the gospel story seems to be passing his own disciples on to Jesus, and it’s as if we are being called like the first disciples of Jesus. Bernard of Clairvaux calls this the second coming of Christ. The first was the Word made flesh with a human nature in the womb of Mary, which we won’t celebrate for two weeks yet. The third is the final fulfillment of the promise, when Christ comes again in the world to judge the living and the dead, and to draw all things to himself, which we already talked about at the end of Ordinary Time and the beginning of Advent. But in between those two, in these weeks, St. Bernard speaks of a second coming, which is the most important for us: Christ being present in our souls, his passage through our lives, through the desert of our hearts, with the challenge of the gospel. And the question I think that challenges us today is the question that Jesus turns and asks the crowd: ‘What did you go out to the desert to see?’

“Well, Lord, I believed the prophet! I believed the promise! I came to see the desert and the parched land exult, the steppe rejoice and bloom with abundant flowers. I came to see the glory of Lebanon and the splendor of Carmel. I came to see the eyes of the blind opened and the ears of the deaf cleared! I came to see the lame leap like astag and the tongue of the mute sing! I came to be met with joy and gladness, I came expecting that sorrow and mourning would flee! And I gotta say I’m a little disappointed that I am not experiencing much of that yet.”

imagesWhen John performs his baptism, he takes the people geographically outside of the Promised Land again for the ritual, to the other side of the Jordan, so they have to cross the desert again and re-enter as if through a new Exodus, with a new mind, a new heart. Just as the Hebrews couldn’t enter the Promised Land without crossing through the desert, just as Isaiah’s readers don’t return to the Promised Land until they fulfill their desert of exile; just as John the Baptist’s disciples don’t re-enter the Promised Land without going through the desert of baptism and repentance, and even Jesus doesn’t hear his Abba’s voice over his head telling him that he is the Beloved One until after his forty days and temptations in the desert, so too we do not enter into the Promised Land of joy and gladness, the land of Gaudete!, without making straight the way of the Lord in the wilderness of our hearts.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, in his wonderful book on the Jewish mystical tradition, says that the wilderness is not just a desert through which the Jews wandered for forty years. The desert is a whole way of being. It’s a “place that demands being honest with yourself without regard to the cost in personal anxiety. A place that demands being present with all of yourself.” A place where our possessions can’t surround us, where our preconceptions can’t protect us, our logic cannot promise us the future and our guilt can no longer place us safely in the past. The desert is a place where we are “left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chastens, and exults.”[1] We perhaps have to start with this mindset…‘What did you go out to the desert to see?’

The archetype of the desert has so many mirrors and chimes on it. I am thinking of two in particular. The first is from the prophet Hosea, a particular favorite passage of scripture to contemplatives: I will lead her into the desert and there I will speak to her heart. This has always struck me as a profound teaching about the monastic cell and about ascetical solitude in general: it is both the bridal chamber and the desert, a place both of love and a place of testing and trial. Catherine de Houeck Doherty’s famous passage from her book Poustinia:

It is to be remembered that you are going to the desert for the following reasons: to fast, to live in silence, to pray, so that you may die to yourself quicker, so that Christ might grow in you faster, so that you might give Christ to the world faster too–this world that is so hungry for him… to pray for humanity, to pray for peace, to pray for the missions and unity among Christians… to become saints faster, lovers of Christ in truth and in deed, to imitate Christ … to learn total surrender to God quicker.

Before we can experience the fullness of joy, we have to cross this desert first, the desert of our heart, the wilderness of our solitude. And this last line is especially fitting for the season of Advent: To learn total surrender to God quicker. With John the Baptist we must decrease so that Christ may increase! We have made Christ wait long enough!

And a second image of the desert comes from that snarky old Trappist hermit writer, Thomas Merton. In the Sign of Jonas, he wrote, “What is my new desert? The name of it is compassion. There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion.” The other way we make a desert of our heart is by being compassionate. This ties in with James’ advice throughout his letter.

The Greek word for the adjective “patient” that we hear in the reading from the Letter to James is makrothymos; the noun would be makrothymia. It’s made up of two parts. Makro means “long” and thymia literally means “breath,” but, like many ancient words for breath, it implies the soul, the will, or the heart. So someone who is maktrothymia is literally “long-breathed”; one who is patient is big souled, magnanimous. But the patience that James is exhorting is not about resignation in the face of evil or quietism or shrinking co-dependency. It’s courageous patience. It is a waiting that’s full of the breath of God, full of joyful hope, full of expectation, a waiting filled with confidence, and also filled with the mercy of God. It’s almost a waiting that’s a not-waiting.

Our desert is also the desert of compassion. So while we wait patiently, we announce the year of the Lord’s favor, we bring the good news to the poor. With the eyes of our hearts illuminated by the light of Christ, we in turn as a Church, fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, and we help to open the eyes of the blind; we become a light on the road for others. And while we wait in joyful hope––believing that, in the sacrament of time, each day is bringing us closer to the Promised Land, the reign of God, we in turn help the lame to walk, help the crippled whom we meet on the path. Our desert is also the desert of compassion. We are “long-breathed” and patient, with the ears of our heart inclined to the Word of God, and while we wait we proclaim the Good News even to those who appear to be deaf to it, maybe through our lives and actions more than with our words. While we wait, we abide in the beauty of Christ in whose image we have been made, and we also look out on the world with God’s own patient compassionate eyes, purifying those the world considers to be lepers, removing from the hearts of our sisters and brothers everything that others judge to be ugly, deformed and impure.

One last thing: one of the greatest lessons I learn from John the Baptist is that my life is not just about me. Notice that even Catherine De Hoeuck Doherty’s litany about solitude is not just about oneself––to pray for others, to pray for peace, to bring Christ to the world. I am bigger when I belong––to God, to humanity, to the universe. I am a part––an indispensable part, but still a part. I am stronger when I know that I belong, when I have the strength of the Spirit; I am larger when I have the soul and collective wisdom of the human race, and the power of Earth flowing through my veins. But something has to die in the desert: my autonomy, my sense of entitlement, perhaps our collective sense of exceptionalism. All that matters little in the desert when we stand awed by its self-mediating austerity and know of our dependence on Something––indeed Someone––greater than our self. That is when we know that if we decrease, Christ increases. Paradoxically, when Christ increases in us, we become bigger, stronger, fuller, filled with the very fullness of God. No one born of woman was greater than John the Baptist, and yet the least of us here, born into the reign of God, is greater than he. We pray that we might decrease in the desert, so that Christ may increase, so that we might give Christ to the world sooner too. We have made him wait long enough.

[1] Lawrence Kushner, Honey from the Rock, 22.

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