“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. … 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.”
There is no better starting point to understand the Scripture readings for the third Sunday of Advent, especially the first reading from the prophet Isaiah (35:1-10), than by reflecting on Pope Benedict’s words. The themes of geography and desert in both the Pope’s inaugural homily and Isaiah’s stirring reading 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.
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. 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. Israel’s singer of hope captured the paradox of barrenness and rejoicing — the paradox of Advent — as no other poet has.
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.
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 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. 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?
(Fr. Rosica CSB is Chief Executive Officer of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, and English Language Attaché to the Holy See Press Office.)