He Will Lead Us Into the Desert and Transform Our Hearts
March 2, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Hosea 2:16b, 17b, 21-22)
Reading II (2 Corinthians 3:1b-6)
Gospel (St. Mark 2:18-22)
Our Lord, in the first reading today from the prophet Hosea, tells us that He is going to lead His people out into the desert, and there in the desert He is going to speak to her heart. It is in the desert, He says, that she will respond as she did when she was a youth, “she” being Israel, the people of Israel, the Spouse of the Lord. As we prepare ourselves for Lent, and even as we look at how many of our young people are right now either in the desert or preparing to go there, we need to think spiritually about what is going on. Not only with regard to war in the desert, but with regard to the desert in which we live: the spiritual desert. But it was in the desert, as the people came out of Egypt, that they spent that time wandering – initially for 40 days, and their disobedience cost them 40 years. Yet, it is precisely that time in the desert that the prophets call the “honeymoon period,” the time when the people had to draw close to God. They had to learn to rely upon Him because they had to understand that they could not take care of themselves. There was no food. There was no water. There was no shelter. But there were a million and a half people, and God fed them and He provided water for them. He provided shelter for them everyday for 40 years. The people drew close to God and they recognized their necessity of dependence on Him. We are headed the same direction now. If we are going to be faithful to God, we are going to need to learn to rely on Him.
We see the same theme of marriage in the Gospel reading when Jesus tells us that He Himself is the Bridegroom. He is the Bridegroom of our souls; the question is, “How many of us treat Him that way?” I suspect if we looked at it and we looked at the way marriage is carried on in the United States, this way, I guess, we could say that many of us treat Him as the Bridegroom of our souls according to modern ways of dealing with marriage. But it is not the way that God intends for marriage to be. He is to be the Beloved of our souls. But remember 3,500 years ago when the people wandered out into the desert, they complained against God. They did not like being out there. They murmured against the Lord. They did not like the food that God provided. They complained because they did not have enough water. I think we can understand very well that if we did not have three regular meals everyday – in fact, far worse than that, if we had to eat the same thing three times a day, everyday – we would probably be complaining too. If we did not have everything that made us comfortable, in this society, we would be complaining.
But it is not the physical desert that God is leading us into; we live in a spiritual desert, and we are about to go deeper into that desert. And each one of us needs to make a choice. Saint Paul told the people of Corinth that they themselves are the letter of recommendation for Saint Paul. Can we say that for Jesus? Would the Lord be able to point to us in the midst of difficult times for the people who are wavering and doubting, for people who are confused and wandering aimlessly, lost in this desert, could the Lord point to us and say, “Look at this person. This is My letter of recommendation. You will see My fidelity in this person”? Can He say that of us? Saint Paul told us that this letter is not written with ink nor is it written on tablets of stone, but on hearts of flesh. God told the prophet Ezekiel that He would take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. I think if we were honest we would have to say that most Catholics – we probably would even have to say that most people who would call themselves Christian – have now replaced that heart of flesh with a heart of stone once again. And that is why God has to lead us out into the desert: because He needs to break that heart, that stony heart.
He wants us to love Him. He wants to rain down upon us the immensity of His love, of His grace; He wants to fill us to overflowing with His grace. But if you think about a rock, when it rains outside, the water just sheets right off of the rock; nothing penetrates it. And if that is the way our hearts are, God tries everything to pour His love down upon us and it just runs right off. So He needs to lead us out into the desert, and He needs to make sure that we are deprived of the things we want so that we recognize what we really need. It is there that He will crush the stone and that He will remake our hearts into hearts of flesh, into hearts of love, hearts that can receive His love, and hearts that can pour forth His love. When we recognize our dependence on God – not only in our heads, that we can all acknowledge it; but in our hearts, that we live it – then we will be living examples of what it means to be the Bride of Christ, then we will be living examples of what it means to be the letter of recommendation of Jesus Himself. Then He will be able to point to us and say, “Here is one who is indeed espoused in truth and justice, in love and fidelity,” as Saint Paul tells the Corinthians that they are. The same will be said of us.
Right now there are a handful of souls of whom that can be said; the rest of us, we need the desert. We do not like the desert, but the desert is a place where you realize there are only two options. If we rely upon ourselves in the desert, we will die. If we rely upon God, He will feed us, He will give us water, He will give us shelter, He will take care of us. He is the Bridegroom of our souls. The word husband means “the one who takes care of the vines and who takes care of the flock.” He is the provider and the protector. If the Lord is the Bridegroom of our souls, He will provide for our souls and He will protect our souls, provided we do not try to divorce ourselves from Him and wander off and go our own way. We need to remain faithful. We need to learn how to love the Lord, to be a faithful spouse and a true spouse to God Himself. That is the dignity He has chosen for each one of us.
The wonderful thing is, just as He did in the desert 3,500 years ago, He will do once again, that is, He will bring water from the rock. He told us that from our hearts will come a fountain welling up to eternal life. From this rock in the middle of our chest, God will bring the fountain of living water. His love and His grace will pour forth from within us. That is what He is holding out for us. But in order for that to happen, we need to be purified. We need to learn that He really, truly does love us, not in theory but in fact, not only knowing that in our heads but experiencing it in our hearts. And it has been proven throughout history of God’s people that there is only one place that that is learned – and that is in the desert. And that is where we are headed.
Last week, He asked through the prophet Isaiah, “Do you not recognize that I am doing something new?” We need to recognize what God is doing and we need to co-operate. He is leading us out into the desert and it is there that He will speak to our hearts. It is there that He will espouse Himself once again to us. It is there that He will write His letter of love upon our hearts. It is there that we will learn the love and the fidelity of the Bridegroom of our souls. And it is there that we will be able to respond as in the days of old, that we will be faithful to our heavenly Spouse, and that the water will once again pour freely from the stone – when God takes away our hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh and fills them with His love.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.