John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2).
This Advent, John the Baptist invites us to go out into the desert to prepare for the coming of Christ. I think it’s important that the prophet doesn’t come to meet us in the midst of the city. Instead, he calls us out of the vibrant hustle-and-bustle of society and into the wilderness. Lonely, dry, and desolate, the desert is the environment in which the Lamb of God chooses to reveal Himself to us.
Something really unpleasant happens to us when we go into the desert: we get lonely. Once we’re out of the city gate, we might enjoy the peace and quiet for a day or two, but soon enough we start missing all the good things we left behind: friends and family, food (other than locusts and honey), and all the things that go into our daily routine of work and leisure. Before long, our thoughts and desires are entirely occupied with the things we miss, and we wonder why John the Baptist brought us here in the first place. Didn’t he read the part in Genesis where God says it’s not good for us to be alone?
As time passes, loneliness is joined by an equally unpleasant companion: thirst. We don’t just want but need to have these good things. And it’s true: we are necessarily bound to people, places, and the physical necessities of life, not just by the earthy bonds of genealogy, geography, and biology, but also by “the silken ties of love.” During the everyday life of the city, we form our lives around the things we most love and cherish. As these are drawn away from us, the aridity of the desert makes us painfully aware of the things on which we have staked our happiness.
In satisfying our desire for happiness with created things, we run the risk of becoming numb to our deepest need: our thirst for God Himself. Everyone who has read the Baltimore Catechism knows that our happiness consists in knowing, serving, and loving God in this life and being with Him in the next. Though this is true, do we really experience our desire for happiness as desire for God? We are called into the desert precisely for this purpose: so that God can reveal to us that He truly deserves to be at the center of our hearts “so that our joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
But God doesn’t bring us into the desert just for us to realize that we actually pine for Him. There is another thirst that God wants us to encounter there in the wilderness: the powerful, loving desire that God has for us, His children. He is waiting there, perhaps disguised, for us to find Him. If we let Him, He will come to us pleading, “give me a drink,” which means, “give Me your love.”
Want a roadmap to the nearest desert? During Advent, the Church suggests that we retreat into the interior, spiritual desert within our hearts through fasting and prayer, and exhorts us to give Christ something to drink through acts of generosity, love, and kindness.
Image: Briton Rivière, The Temptation in the Wilderness (detail)