Becoming Saints in the Desert of This World
December 8, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Second Sunday of Advent
Reading I (Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11) Reading II (2 Peter 3:8-14 )
Gospel (St. Mark 1:1-8)
In the first reading this morning, the prophet Isaiah cries out, “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says the Lord,” and he tells us that the comfort is going to come because the people have expiated their sins. God has given to them double for what their sins were. And in the midst of all of their purification, which happens through the suffering they have to endure, there is going to be a voice of one crying out in the desert, “Make straight the way of the Lord!” So we see, then, the manner in which this is going to take place.
Saint John the Baptist came literally to the desert where he preached the gospel of repentance and baptized people. The people recognized the holiness of Saint John the Baptist. We hear the description of what he looked like. He was living out in the Judean desert, which means down by the Dead Sea – which is the lowest place on earth and a very, very hot and humid area, not a pleasant place to be at all. He wore a camel skin garment and ate grasshoppers and wild honey. If he lived in the twenty-first century, the psychiatrists would have locked him up. Instead, he is the holiest man to have ever walked the face of the earth (with the exception of Our Lord and Our Lady). There was nothing that, on the external level, would have attracted anyone to this man, unless they thought they were going to see some kind of a spectacle. But that is not what they went out into the desert for. They went out in the desert to hear the message of repentance.
The same thing has to be true today. We live in a desert. We do not live in a desert area; we live, obviously, here in Minnesota in a very lush area, as far as water is concerned. But all we need to do is look around society and ask if this society is godly, if we can see the evidence of people living holy lives as we travel around. As you do your Christmas shopping, just ask yourselves, “How are people at the mall?” Do we see the evidence of them living truly Christian lives? Or are people out Christmas shopping and preparing for the Birth of the Savior while sinning against one another all the way, pushing and shoving and taking and grabbing? It is all about “me” and it is not about charity. When it comes to virtue, I think most of us will readily admit: We live in a desert.
That desert is a necessary place because one of the things one learns about in the desert is that there are only two possibilities for survival. That is, you either rely on yourself or you rely on God. It does not take long out in the desert to figure out that you cannot rely on yourself and think that you are going to survive. There is nothing out in the desert. There is no food; there is no water; there is lots of sun and lots of sand and that is about it. So you can either rely on yourself and die, or you can rely on God and you will prosper and live.
In our society, then, spiritually it is the same; spiritually speaking, we live in a desert. If you wander out into the world, there is not much there that is going to feed your soul. It is empty out there. From a spiritual perspective, there is no water and there is no food. That is why Saint John the Baptist, following the prophet Isaiah, has to cry out, “All the mountains must be made low and all the valleys must be filled in!” That has to do with our soul. It is not merely what is physical out in the desert, but it is now what is spiritual out in the desert.
And so we need to recognize that as horrible as many things are out in the world, God is going to use that for our good to bring about great holiness for us, the holiness Saint Peter speaks of in the second reading when he reminds us of what will happen one day at the end of the world: that the earth is going to be destroyed in fire and all of the elements will be melted in flames. He said, “This being the case, what kind of persons ought you to be, and what kind of holiness should you be striving for, and what kind of devotion?” – knowing what is in store, that every deed that has ever been done in the history of the world is going to be revealed at the general judgment, which means that every single person is going to get to see every single thing that we did and we will get to see everything that they did. That is ultimately, of course, to demonstrate God’s mercy, to show to all of us just how much He has forgiven. It will be very clear then exactly what Saint Peter said: that Our Lord’s coming is not delayed the way some people would consider delay, but rather, God’s patience is directed at repentance because He wants all to be saved, as many as possible. We will see that one day.
But in the meantime, we need to be living lives of holiness. And having to live in this society, in this world, in this spiritual desert that we live in, is an immense gift, provided that we recognize it for what it is. We have an opportunity in this society to be able to walk out into the world where we will not be accepted, where the conditions will be harsh and brutal, where we can rely on ourselves and become just like everybody else out there and die spiritually, or we can learn that because the forces that surround us on every front are so powerful, not only walking out of your house and into the world and into the shopping centers and into the office place, but it invades your home – the paperboy drops it off every morning; it is there on the television and the radio every time that you flip the thing on; it is there coming from other people through the telephone lines – so it is not just out there separate from us, it has invaded every part of our lives and we cannot, by ourselves, withstand it. It would be like trying to withstand a torrent of a flood that is racing right at you and you brace yourself and say, “I’ll be able to withstand this!” It is going to knock you right over and sweep you away.
But, for us, we are not trying to do it alone. The gift in living in this society where our faith is not being supported and built up by most of the people around us and it is certainly not being supported and encouraged by the media and society in general, is precisely that we must understand that we cannot do things alone but we must rely on God, just like the people out in the desert. Again, if we think of Saint John the Baptist and put ourselves into his place and say, “I’m going to go out in the desert of this world and I’m going to rely on God so that He is going to feed me,” locusts and wild honey don’t sound like a real exciting diet. Yet we recognize that it was sufficient for Saint John the Baptist. And God’s grace will be sufficient for each one of us, but it may not come the way we would like it to come.
We might like to dream about better days when the world (or at least the local society) was Catholic and people encouraged one another in virtue and lived lives of devotion and the greeting on the street was “Praised be Jesus Christ!” rather than “Good Morning”. This is the way some societies have been. We have never known it in this society. And while indeed it would be much easier to be a good Catholic in a society where everyone around us is living their faith and it is being encouraged on all sides, at the same time it would also become very easy to be lax in our faith in a society like that because we learn simply to take it for granted.
In this society, we cannot take it for granted. All that we can take for granted in this society is selfishness and materialism and ease and pleasure seeking and all the things I keep harping on over and over again; that is the only thing we can take for granted in this society. So we need to stay on our toes. If we are going to live our faith, it is going to be an uphill battle; in so doing, we are going to be strong, we are going to be spiritually “in shape” because we have had to fight for our faith, because we have learned that we cannot rely on ourselves but we must rely on God. It is useless to think about some other society where people were really living their faith and supporting one another in it because that is not where we live. We need to deal with reality now. We live in a desert and each one of us is called in this desert to become holy, to learn to rely on God, to knock down the mountains of our pride that make us think we can do it ourselves, to fill up the valleys of our low self esteem, which is nothing but false humility on the other hand. We need to fill that up so the way of the Lord is made straight in our hearts, so that we become like John the Baptist, who went out into the desert. He prospered there because he learned to rely solely on God and accepted what God provided for his sustenance and for his clothing.
God provides everything for us. He will provide the grace in which we will be clothed. He will provide everything we need to become holy, to become persons of great holiness and devotion as Saint Peter asks us to be, to knock down the mountains and to fill up the valleys. Everything will be provided, provided that we look at God instead of at ourselves, provided that we learn to accept what He gives us and recognize it all as a gift – because it is. God is calling us in the desert of this society to become the greatest saints that the world has ever known, with the exception of the Holy Family. That is the opportunity God is giving to each and every one of us. You, as an individual, have the opportunity to become a great saint. If you lived in a truly Catholic society you would probably become a saint, but living in a desert you have the opportunity to become a great saint, to achieve levels of extraordinary holiness because you are not being brought along in the current of faith, but rather, you have to swim against the current of faithlessness. That is what will make you strong and holy, provided that you look at God and learn to rely on Him for everything.
We need to see what He is doing. We need to listen to His call. He is calling us to be comforted because He has put us in this society to expiate for sin and to grow in holiness, to become saints. That is a pure gift and it should be our pure joy if we are willing, like John the Baptist, to embrace it. Then what people will see is what is truly beautiful within us, and that is Jesus Christ. Like John the Baptist, there was not anything external that people were attracted to; they saw what was in his heart because internally he did exactly what he was preaching externally: he made straight the path of the Lord in his heart. His heart was wide open and there was nothing in the way – just like out in the desert, nothing but sun and sand – there was nothing standing in the way of the Lord. The same can be true of our hearts. If we open the heart to the Lord, if we make straight the path of the Lord within our hearts, the people will see the Lord. They will be attracted to Him, and they will be drawn, not to us because of anything of ourselves, but they will be drawn to us because they see the Lord working in us, they will hear His message being preached through our lives and through our words. They will be drawn on a straight path that leads them through the desert of this world to the great, beautiful place, the Garden of God, for all eternity.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.