Sunday, December 4, 2011

Crying in the wilderness

I want to share with you from today's Mass readings an aspect of what God does in our lives. If you read this blog regularly, you will know that I believe in the “life in all its fulness” that Jesus gives us – the peace and joy, the love, the strength to get through difficult times, the healing and encouragement that come to us as a people through the Word, the Sacraments, and the working of the Holy Spirit in so many different ways. So, I’m NOT saying that living as a Christian is doom and gloom or anything like that.

But what follows has to be said. And although it is is not a “cosy” message, all of us who try to follow Jesus - and especially those who presume to guide others in the Way – need to be encouraged when we go through phases of experiencing the dealings of God in our lives.

The wilderness is not a walk in the park!

It has all kinds of connotations in both Old and New Testaments. We think of the wandering of the Israelites after the exodus, and all those metaphorical uses of wilderness language by the prophets, striking real resonances with people who lived in the Middle East. They knew that the wilderness is a frightening, lonely and dangerous place.

Have you ever thought with sympathy about John the Baptizer? Sometimes we have a kind of sanitized stained-glass window idea of him, concentrating on his being filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb, or merely as a colourful adornment to the story of Jesus.

The Gospels present him as the last of the Old Testament prophets, and a “wild man” at that, who didn’t fit into the relatively refined world of Roman Judea. But I have often wondered just what it was like for him to be faithful to God and the ministry to which he was called. Whether or not he had any contact with or was part of the Essene community near the Dead Sea (as debated by scholars), the fact is that John the Baptizer – the cousin of Jesus – was a man of the wilderness, a rough man, a REAL man, whose ministry prepared the way for Jesus, and whose end was ignominious.

Karl Rahner (1904-1984) has written:

“He [John the Baptizer] is in the wilderness. Obviously because he finds these surroundings appropriate to his life - the parched solitude, the endless spaces, where no one can feel at home. Inevitably we keep discovering that we too are in the wilderness, the wilderness of a great city, the wilderness of isolation, a wilderness that seems to have no center, a wilderness we cannot feel at home in. And we are also men and women who would live in a wilderness if we have to give our outward environment the shape of that which is within us . . .

“All I am, says the precursor, is the voice of one crying in the wilderness. How strange! this is a quotation from Isaiah, and here is the voice from the wilderness where everything is swallowed up by the wind, where nothing has any settled shape, where the cry is lost upon the air. Dies away, that is, but is not lost. For though it reaches nothing else, it does reach the one to whom it is addressed.” Sermon for Advent 3(B)
from The Great Church Year

Was John the Baptizer’s life one of loneliness and brokenness? That’s the implication of the story. Perhaps his forthright preaching of repentance and his harsh words to the religious leaders are only the recorded aspects of a much more varied ministry. Might not his role as an Old Testament prophet figure have been one also of consoling the poor and afflicted (on account of whom he spoke the way he did to those who acted with injustice and hypocrisy)? I have my own mental picture of a man struggling with and brooding over his aloneness a lot of the time. For the experience of most who have been called to various forms of ministry down through the ages, and the witness of the great spiritual directors, confirms that being lonely and even brought to a kind of brokenness in the wilderness is part of what it takes for us to be able compassionately to reach out to others with hope and blessing, as well as – on occasion – with prophetic exhortation.

So, I’m pretty sure that John the Baptist’s wilderness was not just a matter of his physical surroundings, any more than are the wildernesses in which we sometimes find ourselves. For while the wilderness speaks of encounter with God, it also speaks of extreme loneliness, of spiritual crisis, and of encountering the powers of darkness.

When we seek to prepare for ministry, and also when we desperately seek spiritual renewal in our ministry, God in his love and wisdom allows us lengthy times of spiritual wilderness in which we are tried and tested, and sometimes even “broken” as we come to a new place of surrender. What breaks us most, of course, is the discovery he allows us to make of how much our ministry is done out of human ambition and selfishness, and how little real love is there for those to whom we have been sent. Well, GOD loves them so much that he has no choice than to deal with us in this way. So, we have a real battle on the inside; the things that have enabled us to operate in our own strength and for our own ends are torn from us, and as our life is brought under scrutiny, we try to make it through to a new reliance on God alone.

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis described this kind of experience:

“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn't. In this trial he makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”

Well, that’s one side of it. But we mustn’t lose sight of the reason why this work goes on in our lives. And no-one puts it better than Jean Vanier In The Broken Body:

"Our brokenness is the wound through which the full power of God can penetrate our being and transfigure us in God. Loneliness is not something from which we must flee but the place from where we can cry out to God, where God will find us and we can find God.

"Yes, through our wounds the power of God can penetrate us and become like rivers of living water to irrigate the arid earth within us. Thus we may irrigate the arid earth of others, so that hope and love are reborn."

And from Isaiah 35:

"The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing." (1-2)

"For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water." (6b-7a)

"And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way." (8a)

"And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." (10)

-Isaiah 35:1-2, 6b-7a, 8a, 10


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