Fruitful desert

POST BY PGallagher

All the people of Jerusalem made their way to him [1].   

The holy city emptied out as the inhabitants sought John the Baptist in the wilderness.  Sion is made a desert. Jerusalem is desolate [2].     Such was the eloquence and force with which John appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins [3] that people abandoned the city to hear him.   The desert is a propitious place to listen seriously to prophecy and to amend one’s life accordingly. I will hear what the Lord God has to say [4].  Amid simplicity and even shortages there is a sharper attention to what is being said to us.  Away from distractions and from the ordinary round there is scope for deeper prayer and for fuller communion with the Lord. To find that we are no longer present in the usual sanctuary is disconcerting and spiritually destabilizing.   However in the barren place where we take refuge there may be an unexpected fruitfulness.

The leaving of Jerusalem to listen to God in the wilderness makes of the holy city a temporary desert.  The temple is empty. No one is there. Nothing is happening. The city of your sanctuary is become a desert [5].  It is as if an invader has carried everyone off into exile and captivity.  Those who hear John’s preaching of repentance become a kind of exile.  The true home is with God. There is no genuine ease with any other allegiance.  The loving care he lavishes is better than anything ever experienced elsewhere.  He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast [6].   John the Baptist reveals by his prophecy the extent to which to ignore God is to be held prisoner.  Not to be with him is to be shut away from what is good. His help is near for those who fear him[7].  Wrong doing can enthral for a time. The heart can be a wilderness in which no preaching finds an echo.   The desert offers clarity but only to those who choose to listen.

We might have drifted into a bleak landscape.  This badland is neither the fruitful wilderness, sought out at the Lord’s invitation, nor Jerusalem deserta, awaiting our return to worship. Yet, in desolation, we might be reached there by the call to conversion and repentance.  When other resources fail we sometimes turn quite willingly to God.     It is when we are in trouble that some of us hear John the Baptist’s summons to prepare the way for Christ. This trouble is our wilderness.  We did not choose to be in this barren place, or if we did, it was not listen to prophecy.   When misery descends do we decide to listen to what the preacher is saying?  When all else fails, we sometimes turn to God.  To experience ‘all else failing’ is to be ‘in the desert’.  In such moments, we could easily despair. The wilderness can be a place of grumbling and even bitterness.  However, the lack of amenity can also be embraced.  John lived on locusts and wild honey[8].  Discovering ourselves in the desert, we can decide that, despite everything, we want to be here.  Finding that we have lost what we have been accustomed to rely upon, we can accept the loss and allow the renunciation to change us.

John the Baptist speaks of repentance and of the restoration of order.  Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight [9].  In various situations, people make a deliberate choice to hear the truth in the wilderness.  In John, there is no effort to charm us.   There is a ‘take it or leave it’ quality about his unvarnished call to prayer and amendment.  There is also something ‘one size fits all’ about this preaching:  let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low[10].   The whole landscape needs to be altered.  The work which now needs doing will help everyone.  Later, perhaps there will be room for something more personal or bespoke, however, for the time being, everyone is being invited to submit to the same momentous changes. The Lord is being patient with you all, wanting nobody to be lost and everybody to be brought to change his ways[11]. The crowd emptying out of the holy city to find the Baptist in the desert are all hearing the same clarion invitation.  Those who left Sion deserted might have thought that they would be hearing about some privatised baptism or doctrine.  Not so.  In the place propitious for listening, John urges all to repent and to prepare to welcome the Lord back into lives which have long been under his care. What we are waiting for is what he promised: the new heavens and the new earth, the place where righteousness will be at home [12].  The exiles are being summoned to their true home.  Renewal is being brought about thanks to a familiar wisdom.  Shout with a loud voice, joyful messenger to Jerusalem [13].  The good news is once more being proclaimed: do your best to live lives without spot or stain so that he will find you at peace [14].

The crowds were impelled to desert the holy city to go out to the inhospitable spot where John fearlessly spoke the truth.  The last of the prophets urged spiritual and moral preparation for the coming of Christ. Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am…He will baptise you in the Holy Spirit [15].  Nothing would ever be the same again.  Jesus comes to lead us rejoicing into the heavenly Jerusalem where we will be with his Father forever. Jerusalem arise and stand upon the heights, and behold the joy that comes to you from God [16]. John the Baptist does not detain us too long.   His preaching is transitional. He delivers his message crisply. Make a straight highway for God across the desert [17].  In the favourable setting in which we hear of the divine advent, we are attentive and focused.  Purposefully, we move to do the preparation which is requested.  We cultivate our ‘wilderness attitudes’.  To the coming saviour, we open an uncluttered heart. We seek him in simplicity.  We allow him to search us out where we are responsive and even vigilant.  Prepare a way for the Lord [18].   The Christ who approaches does not, in fact, need any road that we might build.  Drop down dew from above you heavens, let the clouds rain down the just one, let the earth be opened and bring forth a saviour [19].  He appears like dewfall and suddenly, like a thief [20].  Yet our labouring on his road is significant.  The Lord has asked us to make this preparation.  We do it for him, but also for ourselves.  Our highway does not abolish the wilderness. We walk along the road with Jesus, who practices and recommends the now familiar desert virtues: simplicity, prayerfulness and the avoidance of distractions.  The Son, who empties himself, prizes emptiness.  Yet he fills the abandoned holy place. Jerusalem is no longer unfrequented.  In the wilderness, which we carry with us, we are empty but receptive.  Christ will fill us with his truth.   The Holy Spirit will pour out on us his abundant grace.  God our Father lavishes love on our barrenness and makes us fruitful.

Homily by Fr Peter Gallagher SJ


[1]              Mark 1.5

[2]              Isaiah 64.10

[3]              Mark 1.4

[4]              Psalm (85) 84.8

[5]              Isaiah 64.10

[6]              Isaiah 40.11.

[7]              Psalm (85) 84.9

[8]              Mark 1.6

[9]              Mark 1.3

[10]            Isaiah 40.4

[11]            2 Peter 3.9

[12]            2 Peter 3.13

[13]            Isaiah 40.9

[14]            2 Peter 3.14

[15]            Mark 1.7-8

[16]            Baruch 5.5 and 4.36; The Roman Missal, the Second Sunday of Advent, Communion Antiphon

[17]            Isaiah 40.3

[18]            Mark 1.3 and Isaiah 40.3

[19]            Isaiah 45.8

[20]            2 Peter 3.10