We are not a people who live in the wilderness. The hustle and bustle of Central Jersey keeps us deeply attuned to the rhythm of urban life. Even in the farming communities of our state urban amenities are never far away. Most of us have little or no experience of the wilderness that is envisioned in the Gospel passage this weekend.
The wilderness played a significant but often unnoticed role in the ministry of Jesus. It was to the wilderness where he goes after his Baptism while he prepares for the beginning of his public ministry. While Jesus preached primarily along the sea and in the cities, the wilderness was never far away either geographically or in the underlying message of his teaching.
John the Baptizer identifies himself with the Old Testament prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness. This might evoke images of a man on the fringes, which is how John seems to be presented in the Gospels. But a man on the fringe is not invisible to those in the center. In Israel the vast wilderness encroaches upon the lush farmland in very stark ways. The wilderness is ever-present.
When we think of wilderness of course we think principally of the eternal world. We sense the landscapes and know the differences between the various terrain formations around us. We can even sense the natural lights of the night sky that provide us with an intuitive sense of orientation in the darkness. Yet, sadly, for most of us this wilderness is not external but rather interior. There is starkness and an emptiness within that blinds us even to the lushness and beauty of the world around us.
As we look around us and perhaps even with ourselves, there is a great deal of psychological, emotional, and spiritual wilderness. Some people are searching for answers to life’s questions and challenges. Many do not know where to turn or how to really begin to get answers. Using an online search engine cannot solve this life problem.
There are other people who, in their search, have abandoned the tradition and faith that would offer them meaning and purpose had they been prepared to rest with it and to be watchful and waiting. Instead they go off in many directions, often heading in ways that are potentially destructive, while finding no satisfaction.
When we don’t know what it is that we are looking for, it can be very difficult to find it. Some carry the attitude that they will know it when they see it, but that seldom ever works out.
The challenge that besets us during these times of pain, confusion, anger, doubt, etc., is to allow the wilderness to become fruitful. When we close in on it and silence the voice of the Lord who calls to us in our wilderness, then we become a wasteland. At these times we live without hope, gradually even choking off the possibility of hope.
John the Baptizer in the wilderness pointed to the coming of the Lord. He was there, not because he abandoned hope but because in the wilderness he was free to embrace it. His was not a wilderness of painful silence but of hope-filled joy.
While for many this time of the year is not about joy, but the anguish of pain and loss, the wilderness can feel overwhelming. We must instead open our hearts and souls to hear the voice in the wilderness, no matter how faint, to make straight the way and path of the Lord.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.[[In-content Ad]]