Those desert experiences. MARK 1:1–8
By Abbot John Pereira OSB
“…Look, I am going to send my messenger before you; he will prepare your way. A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight…” (Mk 1:2–3).
The gospel of Mark begins in the desert. This is indeed a rather strange place for the crowds to go to hear a message of renewal: the desert.
There was a temple in Jerusalem that would have been a more acceptable and expected place for the people to meet their God and be renewed. Instead, the renewal and encounter come in the desert, the place the slaves fleeing Egyptian bondage first met and got to know their God.
It is where God still wants to meet us, in the place where we are stripped of distractions and ready and anxious to listen. In the desert, all our masks are removed.
John the Baptist’s voice announces that the time is now at hand when God will fulfil the ancient promises to Israel. A new road is being cut through the desert and it is Jesus who will walk with us along it.
He will help us deal with hills and valleys that would normally make it impossible for us to traverse on our own.
Today’s gospel is meant for us who often find ourselves in the midst of one desert or another.
Israel knew its deserts. In the sixth century BCE the prophet Deutero-Isaiah consoled the people who had been taken off into Babylonian captivity. The prophet is making a promise on behalf of God: Israel will return to her homeland.
The desert images Isaiah used must have evoked the Israelite religious memory of the escape from Egyptian slavery. God once took these people across the desert to freedom; now God will do it again.
So, as difficult as desert journeys can be, they also offer the possibility for freedom and a new relationship with God.
The prophets often spoke about the wilderness experience in nostalgic terms. The prophet Hosea says, “But look, I am going to seduce her and lead her into the desert and speak to her heart” (2:16).
The desert life of the Exodus represents a lost ideal. And again, “It was like finding grapes in the desert when I found Israel, like seeing early fruit on a fig tree when I saw your ancestors” (9:10). This is Divine Nostalgia.
The gospel tells us that the desert is where the messenger and the message are to be found. And there, in the desert, the voice is “crying out”—trying to get our attention.
Deserts come in all shapes and sizes. Some desert sojourns are for a long time; others may be very intense and brief.
Some are inner spiritual desolations when faith seems to offer no solace. Others are outer struggles when life’s certainties collapse, and the old support fails us.
But, as difficult as desert periods are, the scriptures today suggest that they may also be the places where we meet the messenger from God with a message we need to hear.
I made a journey to Italy in September 2018 to attend a monastic meeting. I was due to return to Mount St Benedict after three weeks. Unfortunately (or, in retrospect, fortunately), I fell ill and was hospitalised.
I was only able to return to Trinidad after five and a half months. For me, that was a desert experience.
As I reflect on that time in Rome, I now realise that God had brought me to that wilderness in order to speak tenderly to my heart.
Heavenly Father, I trust in You. I know that You often take me into difficult places and time zones in order to speak tenderly to my heart.
Help me to accept Your will in my life. Help me to realise that when things seem bleak and I am going through a period of dryness, it is merely so that You can speak tenderly to me as You once spoke to the people of Israel in the wilderness. Amen.
The gospel reflections for December are by Abbot John Pereira OSB of the Abbey of Our Lady of Exile, Mount St Benedict.