I am from the desert. The real, bona fide, cactus-sandstorm-tumbleweed desert. It is rugged. It is harsh. It can be dangerous. But it is also beautiful. The sunsets are unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and you can see the stars more clearly there than anywhere else in the world. I suppose some people in the world think of beauty when they think of the desert, but when I unofficially polled about ten of my friends last week, here are the most common responses I got:
None of the friends I asked—men and women—said anything about beauty. (Interestingly, lots of them also listed sweets and yummy treats but that is another blog for another time.) When most of us think of a desert, we think of a tough, ugly place, far away from here (unless you live in one—hi, Mom!). It’s not a place we’re familiar with, or even want to go.
Yet if we are honest with ourselves, I think each of us must admit there is a desert place in every human heart. There is a desert place in my heart, certainly, which I know because a recent gospel reading (Matthew 15:29-37) was all about Jesus healing and feeding and caring for the thousands that had followed him, yet the thing that stood out to me was the disciples’ one question. Jesus, seeing how hungry the crowd was, tells the disciples that he intends to feed them. The disciples ask, “Where could we ever get enough bread in this deserted place to satisfy such a crowd?” (Mt. 15:33)
I’ve noticed something remarkable about deserts over the years, having lived most of my life in various ones.
Every desert I’ve been to is bordered by mountains. When those same friends told me what words they associated with mountains, here’s what I got:
Those words are altogether more hopeful and positive. The strength and grandeur of mountains seems to be entirely opposite from the isolation of deserts. In our minds, at least, they don’t have much in common—the snow and beauty of high peaks has little to do with the low-lying, sweltering aridity of a desert. Even scripture seems to show us a similar picture: compare the desert of Jesus’ temptation with the mountain of Isaiah’s promises. The mountain is the place of God’s providence (Is 25:6), his comfort (Is 25:8), and his faithfulness (Is 25:9).
But sometimes, the desert and the mountain are the same place. Matthew 15:29-37 shows us this. (Read it!) It’s on the mountain that Jesus healed the thousands. It’s there the disciples say is a “deserted place.” It’s there that Jesus feeds the crowd, including the disciples.
Advent is the dreamiest of all Church seasons for a reason, my friends. It is a time of preparation and penance, yes—a time to face these heart-deserts and admit that sometimes, they reign in my life instead of Jesus—but it is also a time of great hope and joy. We get to ask Jesus how he could ever satisfy such longing. We get to wait for his reply, and not only hear him speak—which he will—but also watch him do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves: quench our deepest deserts of need. The best part of Advent is that we don’t just sit in a desert and wait (two of the hardest things in my opinion, but then I sunburn easily and I’m not very patient). We are invited to rejoice in the midst of it.
Rejoice in the longing that seems impossible to fill.
Rejoice in the deserted places that feel hopeless.
Rejoice in waiting for God’s promises to come true.
To thee shall come Emmanuel…