Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time at New Melleray Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Hos. 2:16-17, 21-22; 2Cor. 3: 1b-6; Mk. 2: 18-22 ]
A theme that runs through the Old and New Testaments is God’s apparent preference for the desert as a place to prepare his servants for their mission and their destiny. God called Abraham out of Haran to live on the fringes of Canaanite society in the desert areas of Palestine. He appeared to Moses in the desert of Sinai and gave him the mission of leading the Hebrews back to Sinai to initiate them into becoming God’s special people. It was in the desert that God tested the Hebrews and formed them into his people. In this morning’s first reading God again leads Israel, personified in Hosea’s wife Gomer, back into the desert to learn to know him once again. In the New Testament John the Baptist was sent into the desert to prepare the way for the Messiah. It was in the desert that Jesus was revealed not only as the Messiah, but as God’s own Son; and it was to the desert that Jesus returned during his public ministry to be with his Father.
While God’s preference for the desert stands out, the why of his preference is not obvious. I think it would be more typical for us to look to the centers of power and decision-making if we expect something significant to happen. I doubt that many of us would expect much to come from deserted places. Yet God consistently avoids the centers of power and decision-making. Perhaps it is because God does not want to teach his servants, and that includes you and me, power, but knowledge of himself. And knowledge of God is not power, at least not as we usually understand it, but justice and right and love and mercy and fidelity.
Entering the spiritual desert like entering a geographic desert requires a stripping away of excess baggage down to what is essential to our purpose. We need to learn what justice and right and love and mercy and fidelity are and distinguish them from clutter that gets in the way of our knowledge of God. This means leaving behind our familiar ways of understanding God and experiencing what can seem to be the absence of God. Deserts are lonely places and yet it is by accepting the aloneness of God’s apparent absence that we grow in our desire for God. As St. Gregory of Nyssa, among others, has said: In this life our desire for God is our experience of God.
Lent is not high on most peoples’ lists of favorite times of the year. I am one of the exceptions who looks forward to Lent. After all St. Benedict said that the life of a monk should be a continuous Lent. I don’t think that was because of a morbid streak in St. Benedict’s personality. I think it was because St. Benedict knew from experience that the joy of growing in our knowledge of God only comes by getting rid of some of the comfortable clutter that we have accumulated. As we begin Lent this Wednesday I suggest that we all ask the Holy Spirit to show us what we should leave behind as we enter the desert of the Lenten season to hear God speaking to our hearts.