Sunday, December 10, 2006

2nd Sunday of Advent (C)
In the Wilderness of the Heart

Readings: Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah, in the wilderness…

One of the perks of accompanying people on retreats is the opportunity to catch a glimpse of God at work in their lives. Although each individual’s experience is unique one can sometimes identify some common recurring experiences among those who give themselves generously to the process of prayer. People, of course, come with different needs and expectations. Some come without any fixed agenda. They simply want to spend some time away from the hustle and bustle of daily living. Others come with a particular issue they wish to thrash out with God. Whatever it is, quite frequently, as people immerse themselves into the silence and stillness of the retreat, they find memories, thoughts and feelings arising within them that may at first bring them some discomfort – an incident or a loss that brought sadness, anger at some injustice or insult or grievance, disappointment or frustration arising from failure… Whatever the situation or feeling, like John the Baptist in today’s gospel, they find themselves being ushered into the wilderness.

Uncomfortable and disorientating though this wilderness experience maybe, however, things often begin to happen when people resist the temptation to escape, to suppress their feelings, to distract themselves, or to think and pray about something else. As they remain in the wilderness, they begin to see another side to their experience. In particular, they may realize that beneath their pain and discomfort lie very deep desires – for fair treatment, for intimacy, for recognition, for love… – desires that may have been frustrated. And, as it was with John the Baptist, when they lift these desires to God, when they courageously remain in the wilderness, the word of God comes to them.

What is this word? How does it come? What does it achieve?

While the details may vary from one person to the next, what is similar is the amazing fact that the word actually comes in the wilderness. That is, it is in the very midst of the retreatants’ struggle with the difficult memory or thought or feeling that God appears and speaks to them. And, often quite miraculously, the very memory that brought pain and frustration becomes a memory of God’s marvelous presence and providence, a cause for joy and praise of God. In the words of the response to today’s psalm:

What marvels the Lord worked for us! Indeed we were glad…

And often, these are also memories of how God has worked marvels through the kindness of others – those who may have offered a word of consolation or a supporting shoulder, a helping hand or the comfort of companionship. And as Paul does in the second reading today, retreatants are led to pray with joy and gratitude for these bearers of God’s care and concern.

Everytime I pray for all of you, I pray with joy…

These wondrous effects of God’s word – the transformation from struggle to joy – is expressed so beautifully in the words from today’s first reading and gospel:

Every valley will be filled in, every mountain will be laid low, winding ways will be straightened and rough roads made smooth…

Someone grieving a loss is somehow enabled to let go. Another who is resentful finds the ability to forgive. Yet another who feels abandoned is consoled...

Aren’t these retreat experiences also examples of what the Lord wishes to bring us this Christmas? Aren’t they the reason for our preparation in this time of collective retreat that is the season of Advent? We enter into the respective wildernesses of our longing and waiting, so that like John, we may hear God’s powerful word addressed to us, calling and enabling us to:

take off our dress of sorrow and distress, in order to put on the beauty of the glory of God for ever…

Sisters and brothers, as it was for the Baptist, God’s word continues to come to us in the wilderness. How might we better receive and respond to it today?

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