Desert experience

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid…”

How consoling these words are to us especially today. The long-lingering pandemic, the recent calamities, the economic instability, the ever-increasing deaths (COVID related and otherwise), the frustrating political situation… have caused untold suffering, fear, and anxiety to us personally and as a people. We can only welcome these words of comfort with hope and gratitude.

These words were originally addressed by God to Israel as they were returning from their Babylonian captivity. God would deliver his people from bondage with power and “like a shepherd, he [would] gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep [home].”

This moving image illustrates a basic biblical truth that salvation is God’s initiative. It affirms the primacy of grace – that everything is grace.

In his quest for happiness, St. Augustine discovered that God has made us for himself and that our heart will remain restless until it rests in him. While this is perfectly true, the primordial fact is that even before we seek God, he has sought us first. In salvation, God’s initiative always precedes us. When Adam and Eve sinned, it was God who searched for them in the garden. Jesus likens God to an owner who looks for his lost sheep or her lost coin, and a Father who daily awaits the return of his lost son.

At the same time, God cannot save us without our cooperation. St. John of the Cross speaks of a self-bestowing God, who wants to give himself totally to us. However, he does not impose or force himself on us. All he asks is a space for him to enter into our life. A spiritual writer vividly describes this by comparing God to a helicopter that wants to land but can only do so if the ground is clear. Spiritual life consists in clearing the ground for the Lord’s coming. Even before we cry out, “Lord, rend the heavens and come down,” God has long been waiting and wanting to land.

In today’s readings, the prophet teaches us how to clear the ground for the Lord’s coming. It entails straightening our crooked ways by living a life of honesty and integrity. It means leveling off the hills and the mountains of our pride and arrogance. It necessitates lifting up the valleys by filling the void in our hearts created by our many sins of omission. A common negligence we are often guilty of is that we pray little or not at all. Another may be our lack of sensitivity to the needs of others. Advent is certainly a favorable time to bring back prayer and charity into our life.

In the first reading and in the gospel, the desert stands out as the place where to expect the Lord. How come? Barren, empty and lifeless, the desert is dreaded as a threatening and hostile setting. In the desert one feels alone, totally isolated and utterly helpless. It is these characteristics that make the desert the fitting place to find God. It is in our helplessness that God comes to us as Savior and Messiah. It is in our emptiness (nada of St. John of the Cross) that we are filled with God’s abundance. How important it is then to live the days of advent as a desert experience if we are to meet the Lord on Christmas Day.

In our diocese, we have a radio program dubbed “Kwarenta,” which (among other things) is meant to help our people cope with the present situation and find meaningful ways of dealing with the pandemic. It consists mainly of interviews with different people from all walks of life who share their experiences in the light of Church teachings, particularly, the Laudato Si and Fratellli Tutti.

At first, the guests would lament about the many deprivations the pandemic has caused them. Gradually however they begin to realize that even in their loss (or perhaps because of their loss), they found things that matter more in life. Their forced quarantine has provided them more time with their family which greatly help strengthen their bond and deepen their relationship. With nothing much to do, they have also found time to pray again as a family and revive the evening rosary.

Advent is some kind of quarantine or lockdown but not a forced one. It is a voluntary deprivation of many things of value, in exchange for one beyond any price – Jesus, the Messiah.*

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