Finding the wilderness

The Gospel of this 2nd Sunday in Advent points to John the Baptist as, “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths…’”

Advent is a time when we commemorate the adventus of Jesus — his coming, arrival, or birth into the days and nights of our world. At Advent Christians look forward in expectation of Christ’s future coming, to that time when God will culminate what he has now only inaugurated, when he will finish what he has started, and will fulfill what he has promised.

At Advent we connect these two horizons — celebration of Jesus’s past birth and expectation of his future coming. We live our present days in light of that future day. We are called to live at the intersection of kairos and chronos. What the Celts called the “thin places”, places where the boundary between the earthly and the eternal becomes permeable. A place and time when we catch glimpses of God’s love, majesty, and power as it pours into the world. Advent is a season to consider the thinnest of places. And perhaps it is the wilderness that is a thin place where we are undistracted and most able to peer through the veil into the fullness of God’s promise.

The Palestinian/Jordanian wilderness is one of those thin places. In an area just north of the Dead Sea is Al-Maghtas, what we Christians know as “Bethany beyond the Jordan.” It is an area far from the metropolitan center of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In Deuteronomy 34, Moses reached the precipice of Mt. Nebo overlooking Al-Maghtas and at last could look into Canaan, the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. Moses looked over and beyond the Jordan into the place of promise. Tradition holds that this was the place where Joshua led the people Israel into Canaan, crossing the Jordan River. This is the place where Elijah was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. This is the place were John cried out to prepare the way of the Lord and baptized for repentance of sin – and to renew the covenant with God – crossing over into promise as did their ancestors with Joshua. One wilderness area where so much of salvation history has played out. Where people have gathered in the hope of God’s promises.

It is a place where the pilgrims go and experience God in our time, in chronos, breaking through a thin place to let the desire of God, that all be saved, play out among believers calling all to redemption.

Such is the allure of the wilderness as a thin place.

But the thin places are where one peers into the fullness of God’s promises. Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan is beyond our everyday travels, but not so the thin place to which God calls us. There is a myth that one needs to withdraw from modernity and the hustle of life to a modern Walden Pond as did the 19th century philosopher Henry David Thoreau. While Thoreau’s cabin was in a grove of trees near the pond, in fact it was on the edge of his birth place, Concord.  The surrounding lands had been settled and farmed for years. Thoreau’s wilderness was more edge-of-the-pasture than edge-of-the-wilderness. Dorothy Day, the famous Catholic advocate for the poor, found her wilderness in the boroughs of New York City.

Wilderness comes in many forms. The Advent nature of wilderness is that it is the place you can “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths…”

We are a busy people with the holidays upon us. Time is at a premium. Yet we are called to find that wilderness, the thin place, where we can connect the horizons: the celebration of Jesus’s past birth and expectation of his future coming. We are called to find ways in our present days to live in light of that future day. We are called to a place and time when we can catch glimpses of God’s love, majesty, and power as it pours into the everyday of the world.

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