The Highway of Holiness Passes through the Desert
December 5, 2016
christ-wilderness-cropped
Third Sunday of Advent, Year A - December 11th, 2016
In his moving homily for the Inauguration of his Petrine Ministry as Bishop of Rome on April 24, 2005, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke these words:
The pastor must be inspired by Christ’s holy zeal: for him it is not a matter of indifference that so many people are living in the desert. And there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction. […] The Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.
The deserts of our lives
What better starting point to understanding the Scripture readings for the third Sunday of Advent, especially today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah (35:1-10), than by reflecting on these words of Pope Emeritus Benedict? The themes of geography and desert in both the Pope Emeritus’ inaugural homily and the stirring reading from Isaiah invite us to reflect on the deserts of our own lives. How do we live in the midst of our own deserts? How often have we become deserts of loneliness, desolation, and emptiness, rather than flourishing gardens of community, joy, and light for others? How have we resisted transforming our own deserts into places of abundant life? We may have to go into that wilderness where we realize we are lost and alone, unfruitful and without resources – and only when we reach that point are we ready to meet God.
The geography of salvation
We encounter the geography of salvation at many places in the Bible. This geography forms the background for Isaiah’s portrayal of the coming of the Lord in chapter 35. Whereas judgment of the nations is described in Isaiah 34, chapter 35 stands in stark contrast to the bleak picture of devastation and desolation in the preceding chapter as the Lord judges the land of Edom. Defeated in battle and driven from their homeland, the people of Israel were without hope.
Isaiah 35:1-10 announces the end of the Babylonian captivity, presenting a stirring vision of deliverance, freedom, and salvation. The prophet recalls the joyous memories of the exodus from Egypt. A second exodus is in store, symbolized by the healing granted to the blind, the dead, the lame, and the mute. Isaiah, Israel’s singer of hope, captured the paradox of barrenness and rejoicing – the paradox of Advent – as no other poet has. Scanning the southern Negev desert’s gnarled surface he saw a vision of God’s new creation: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing…” (35:1).
A new exodus
Delivered and saved by God, all peoples shall return to their own land by way of the desert, in a new exodus. Salvation bursts onto the world scene through geography: highways, valleys, mountains, deserts, and plains! The road, the desert, water, and joy are more than mere coincidence. Isaiah prophesies that there shall be one pure road and it will be called the way of holiness upon which the redeemed shall walk. From desert to streams to the highway of holiness, Isaiah’s atlas of the geography of salvation leads us into the mountain of the presence of the Lord: The ransomed of the Lord will return and enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away (35:10).
The desert as metaphor
The desert has become a metaphor to describe the sense of alienation and despair that are the effects of human sinfulness. How many times have we used the expression: “I’m living through a real desert experience” or “I feel so alienated from God and from other people” to describe what we are feeling because of our sinfulness. If we are complacent and self-satisfied, we’ll never begin to long for the coming of the Lord, or make ready to meet him. The ways of the desert were deep within the heart of Jesus, and it must be the same for all who would follow him. In the midst of the desert we hear what God will do if we open our hearts to him and allow God to make our own deserts bloom.
The geography of salvation… today
God has revealed himself to us not only in specific periods of time, but also in very particular places in creation. For many Christians, these very places conjure up images of shepherds and olive trees, high walls and enclosed, ancient cities and towns as they existed in the age of King David or Bethlehem at the time of Jesus. The Holy Land is a land without history, its people and places frozen in a biblical time frame, or locked in an unending political battle. As Catholics, we have a double obligation to thaw out the frozen biblical time frame and make it accessible and inviting for Christians.
A visit to the Holy Land reminds us that we are caught up not only in the History of Salvation but also in the Geography of Salvation. Both the story of our own lives, coupled with the biblical stories, show us how God can write straight with our crooked lines. The best-selling Holy Land Guides do not bear witness. They merely indicate. Only people, not stones and marbles can bear the most authentic and eloquent witness that at one shining moment in history, the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. And we continue in our day to behold his glory.
Were the Holy Places turned into museums or archaeological curiosities as they have been in other countries, tangible historical links would be severed. Without the presence of local churches and communities of Christians, the witness of the Holy Land would be terribly diminished and even non-existent.
The word of God and the Holy Land
As we journey through this season of Advent, I encourage you to continue reading Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini and especially the following section that speaks eloquently about “The word of God and the Holy Land” (#89):
As we call to mind the Word of God who became flesh in the womb of Mary of Nazareth, our heart now turns to the land where the mystery of our salvation was accomplished, and from which the word of God spread to the ends of the earth. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Word became flesh in a specific time and place, in a strip of land on the edges of the Roman Empire. The more we appreciate the universality and the uniqueness of Christ’s person, the more we look with gratitude to that land where Jesus was born, where he lived and where he gave his life for us. The stones on which our Redeemer walked are still charged with his memory and continue to “cry out” the Good News. For this reason, the Synod Fathers recalled the felicitous phrase that speaks of the Holy Land as “the Fifth Gospel.” How important it is that in those places there be Christian communities, notwithstanding any number of hardships! The Synod of Bishops expressed profound closeness to all those Christians who dwell in the land of Jesus and bear witness to their faith in the Risen One. Christians there are called to serve not only as “a beacon of faith for the universal Church, but also as a leaven of harmony, wisdom, and equilibrium in the life of a society which traditionally has been, and continues to be, pluralistic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious.”
The Holy Land today remains a goal of pilgrimage for the Christian people, a place of prayer and penance, as was testified to in antiquity by authors like Saint Jerome. The more we turn our eyes and our hearts to the earthly Jerusalem, the more will our yearning be kindled for the heavenly Jerusalem, the true goal of every pilgrimage, along with our eager desire that the name of Jesus, the one name which brings salvation, may be acknowledged by all (cf. Acts 4:12).
The Sunday of rejoicing
The way of Israel in the desert is the way for all of us. As we celebrate the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday or the day of rejoicing, we join with the exiles of Israel and the disciples of John the Baptist as we yearn for salvation, and long for new life to blossom. This week let us carve out some spiritual space in our lives where we can strip away the false things that cling to us and breathe new life into our dreams and begin again. In the midst of the desert we hear what God will do if we open our hearts to him and allow him to make our own deserts bloom. What God does to the southern desert of Israel, God will do for us: transform our barrenness into life, and trace a highway and a holy way in places we believed to be lifeless and hopeless. Are we on the Highway of Holiness? Are we making progress on it? Are we enjoying the travel? Are we inviting others to join us on the way?
Come, Lord Jesus!
We need you now more than ever.
Make our deserts bloom.
Quench our thirst with your living water.
Give us strength to follow you on the Highway of Holiness.
Fill our hearts and minds with rejoicing!
[The readings for this Sunday are: Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; James 5:7-10; and Matthew 11:2-11.]
(Image: Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoy)
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