The following is my homily for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, Year A. The readings can be found here.
Have you ever been out in the desert? I mean, like, really out there. I drove cross country once from San Diego to Washington DC and there’s about four days of nothing. Just hundreds of miles of absolutely nothing. On one of the days we were driving through New Mexico we just stopped the car and stood on the side of the road for a minute. It was breathtaking… and a bit terrifying. The desert, by definition, is a place of desolation. It is not comfortable—extreme vulnerability to sun, no food, no water. While some plants and animals miraculously survive, we humans are not at home in it.
I believe that this is exactly what God wants us to feel sometimes. Have you ever wondered why almost every powerful story of conversion, every important moment of calling from God in the Bible happens in the desert? Moses had his first encounter when he left the palace and fled to the desert. Elijah heard God’s voice on the mountain in the light silent sound. Even Jesus himself went to the desert in preparation for ministry. There’s a reason why the first forms of religious life in our Church were the desert Fathers and Mothers, that those who offered spiritual direction and wisdom required their students to enter the desert with them: this is where we are able to hear God.
It’s a place where we are not at home. A place where we depend on God. A place away from distractions, utterly focused on survival, with no time for anything else. It is in the desert—in our discomfort, in our dependence, in our focus—that God can actually speak to us, because we are actually willing to listen.
It’s no wonder, then, that the person who announces the coming of Christ, who can see clearly as God does, comes from the desert. John the Baptist is not a priest or scribe, he did not grow up going to the temple or making pilgrimages to Jerusalem. This is not a popular prophet or mainstream figure. No, he comes from the silence of the desert, away from the world. And he doesn’t just live in the desert and come to the city to preach. No, he preaches from the desert.
What I find so interesting is that he didn’t just live in the desert, he preached from there as well. What does Matthew say? “John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert near Judea.” He did not take what he had learned from the desert and bring it to where people were; he didn’t go into the city squares and fight for their attention. No, if you wanted to hear him preach, if you wanted to hear his message, you had to go to the desert yourself. Those who couldn’t be bothered, those who were afraid, those who stayed in the comfort of their homes—they didn’t hear anything. It was only those who were committed enough to the message of God, willing enough to leave something behind, willing enough to strip themselves of all their distractions and enter the desert, who heard the announcement.
If you want to hear God speak, you have to go to the desert yourself. Now, before we all go out and buy tickets to Phoenix, what do I mean by this. Well, two things:
The first is about a a place of focused, silent prayer; a place of complete and utter desolation, dependence on God.
Our lives are very stimulating. Even for those of us who have extremely boring lives, we are constantly being bombarded with stuff. For many of us, there is no quiet in our lives. I mean real quiet. The moment we find ourselves moving towards it, when we have nothing to do, we pull out our phones, turn on the TV, look for something to do or someone to talk to.
We are a people with a serious case of FOMO, and so we remain connected, always watching and waiting, always checking our phones to see what’s up. We need the silence of the desert. We need the quiet that is so desolate, so barren, so empty that it’s like you’re in a different world… a world where there is just us and God.
I remember experiencing this for the first time when I went on a retreat during my first year with the friars. For an entire week, we were told that we had to turn off our phones, we couldn’t bring our laptops. There were no televisions, and the only talking we were allowed to do was during mass and prayers. The silence… was deafening. There may not have been sand or cacti, but I was in a desert, a place with nothing but myself… and God. I tell you, it was one of the most difficult, awful, excruciating weeks of my life… but it was also one of the most important experiences as well. I realized that God had been speaking to me all along, calling out to me… but it was only when I entered the desert that I was able to hear him; only when I stripped myself of all my distractions and comforts that I was able to focus on him. In the silence of that retreat, I had one of my most profound encounters with God.
The desert is where God speaks… and so we must go to listen. Maybe it’s a retreat, but maybe it’s simply the silence our room when we turn off our phones, a block of time we set aside at the same time each day for God and God alone. If we want to hear, we must go to the desert.
But of course, the desert is more than just a place of solitude, more than just a place of prayer—it is the act of leaving behind what is comfortable in order to experience the periphery. John the Baptist was not a prime candidate for life advice. Take one look at the way he dressed, what he ate, and you might think… “Um… thanks, but no thanks. Not sure if you should be the one telling others what to do…” But what a shame it would be to do that: you’d miss out on one of the most important announcements in the history of the world.
God does not always choose who we would choose—in fact, he never does. God chooses the weak to shame the strong, the foolish to shame to learned, the poor to shame the rich; he chooses a crazy guy from the desert to shame the religious and cultural elite, to remind them that they know nothing of God. I wonder, sometimes, how often we miss seeing God in our world because we refuse to hear certain people, because we stay here in the comfort of our own little bubbles of people who are like us and like us, refusing to step out of our comfort zones.
A few years ago I went to the periphery of peripheries. For two months, I lived at a refugee camp in a small town of Mexico, a place where the friars offer food and housing to migrants. While I was there, I met a guy who was traveling north to cross the American border. In many ways he was someone who was easy to dismiss: he was dirty, had tattoos, wasn’t particularly educated. He was, in our government’s eyes, a criminal, this being not the first time he was trying to cross the border but the third. And so I asked him why he kept doing it. Why put yourself through the travel, the muggings, the deportations. He said, “What choice do I have? My family is in El Paso. I have two daughters, 8 and 10. My wife is there, my life is there. I know that it won’t be easy, I know that I may die on the way, but what choice do I have?” Here was a man who knew the importance of family, who was willing to do anything for them, a man who had something to teach me about family and sacrifice and commitment. How easy it would have been for me to write him off, to ignore him as someone who couldn’t teach me anything.
For the past 6 years, Pope Francis has been calling us to go to the peripheries of society, and this is precisely why. He has called us to the peripheries, to the outcasts, to those rejected by society because that is who God chooses to speak through. This does not mean that every homeless person, every migrant, every person from an outcast group has some profound wisdom to share, but it does mean that if we ignore them, we’ll never meet the ones who do.
God calls us to the desert. The desert of prayer, and the desert of the periphery. And so I ask you the same question one more time: have you ever been to the desert? I mean, really. Those who refused to go to the desert 2000 years ago missed out on the opportunity to meet John the Baptist. Who knows what God is speaking right now, in our very world, for those willing to enter the desert.