Into the Desert
|What can God do with one who willfully gives himself
over to the world, and is deceived by its pleasures, or led astray by material wanderings?
The man to whom He gives help is the one who turns away from material pleasures and
from his former habits, who drags his mind at all times to the Lord, whether it will or
no, who denies himself and seeks the Lord only. This is the man whom He keeps under His
care: who guards himself on every side from the snares and entanglements of the material
world, who works out his own salvation with fear and trembling, who passes with all heed
amidst the snares and entanglements and lusts of this world, and seeks the help of the
Lord, and hopes by His mercy to be saved through grace.
St. Macarius the Great
After the forty days of Advent's preparation, for twelve days we celebrate the Theophany of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. This series of feasts begins with His Nativity, includes His Circumcision and concludes with His Baptism in the Jordan. This period of celebration in the liturgical year is surpassed only by Pascha, the Feast of feasts and Triumph of triumphs.
Both of these great celebrations of the Christian year are preceded by periods of fasting and preparation-Advent and Great Lent. The world and mankind inhabiting it had to be prepared to receive the Saviour, and generations upon generations were instructed by the Patriarchs, the Law and the Prophets so that a faithful and vigilant few would recognize Him when He came. Israel wandered in the desert under Moses' care for forty years before being brought into the Promised Land with miraculous triumph by the Lord. We also must prepare ourselves if we wish to partake of the true celebration of these holy days, and find refreshment and renewal for our souls as well as consolation for our bellies.
Even as we celebrate, we are constantly reminded of the desert. The Mother of our Saviour found no place in the city of David and bore the Divine Child in a grotto, a stable, provided by the desert. From the wilderness shepherds were summoned by angels to adore Him, along with desert-traversing magi. Soon the Lord Himself traversed the desert into Egypt with His Mother and supposed father Joseph to escape Herod's mad massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem.
Again, to celebrate the Baptism of our Lord we travel down into the Jordanian desert where John the Baptist is preaching and baptizing unto repentance in that sacred stream. And our Lord no sooner comes out of the waters He hallows by His Baptism than He departs into the desert to fast and to be tempted. St. Mark puts this very strongly, declaring, And immediately the Spirit driveth Him into the wilderness...
The Gospel reading from St. Matthew, appointed to be read on the Sunday after Theophany, concluding this festal period, relates how John the Baptist was arrested and our Lord withdrew to Galilee and began preaching, Repent; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Soon after this we enter the period of preparation for Great Lent, just as our Lord "immediately was driven by the Spirit" into the desert for fasting and temptation.
Even after returning from His temptations in the wilderness, and leaving Nazareth for Capernaum, we find our Saviour more and more withdrawing into the wilderness of Galilee of Judea to be alone for prayer, to be alone with His disciples, to escape the envy and plots of the leaders of the Jews. Finally, it is from the Judean desert that He comes to Bethany to resurrect Lazarus and enter Jerusalem for His voluntary and saving Passion. When we look at the feasts of the great saints we celebrate during these days of festivity, we find even sterner stuff than the desert: St. Stephen, the First Martyr, the 20,000 Martyrs of Nicomedia, the Holy Innocents slain by Herod. All these feasts of holy martyrs are directly linked to our celebration of Christ's Nativity in Bethlehem.
The Feast of Theophany or the Baptism of our Lord is also set amongst the celebrations of St. John the Baptist, that "voice crying in the wilderness", great ascetics of the desert and holy martyrs.
For those of us who consider good health and comfort and enjoyment of life as normal, these constant intrusions of the wilderness, of martyrdom and of ascetic struggle are disquieting. Why do these gusts of cold, winter air and spasms of pain keep interrupting us when we are at our merriest? But even the headlines and news broadcasts remind us that our merriment is a delusion, should events in our personal and family lives leave us oblivious to the troubles abounding in the world.
There are those whose sentimental or sensual celebrations are more delicate and fragile than dreams; they fear the tender bubble of their delights will burst too soon and abandon them to their hangovers and all the inescapably unreal.
But we by contrast are called to be sober and alert. Harsh realities and the cruelties of this world are not hidden from us even amid our merriest celebrations. And rightly so. For it is not in escaping or forgetting such realities, but in facing and overcoming them that we truly partake in our Lord's Incar-nation.
The Church's celebration and the Gospel's themes are not demented depressants of darkening doom. They mirror the harsh world we live in, the world we seek to escape when wearied and heavy laden we seek refuge in Christ. But how different these woes and afflictions appear in the Church's celebration than when presented by the media as sensational world news.
The world bombards us with its confusion and uncertainties. Afflicted by its assaults, we hear the great Prophet King David confessing how when my spirit within me is become despondent; within me my heart is troubled, I remembered the days of old, I meditated on all Thy works, I pondered on the creations of Thy hands. I stretched forth my hands unto Thee; my soul thirsteth after Thee like a waterless land (Ps. 142).
Here is the key to unlocking the great treasures buried in the deserts where our Lord and His Church constantly lead and summon us. Herod and all Jerusalem with him was troubled by the news of the birth of our Lord. But the shepherds went their way rejoicing, the magi preached Christ to all and the Virgin Theotokos "pondered all these things in her heart". The holy martyrs and confessors and desert fathers found this priceless treasure hidden in the desert. They made the desert a city, or rather a luxuriant paradise, a new Eden and garden of delights. Peter, not knowing what to say, cried out to our Lord at His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor while keeping vigil on a mountaintop in the wilderness, It is good for us to be here! St. Stephen beheld Him standing in glory at the right hand of the Unseen Father and the stones cast upon him became jewels in his martyr's crown. The flames that consumed the great church in Nicomedia on that Christmas Day of old were left cold ashes before 20,000 martyrs so gloriously born into eternity by celebrating Christ's Nativity.
One of the great saints whose memory we celebrate during the feast of Theophany is that of St. Theodosius the Great (Jan. 11) who went off into the Palestinian desert to perfect his salvation in ascetic stillness. He happened upon a cave where he passed the night and while sleeping there it was revealed to him that in this cave the magi had rested on their way to Bethlehem. With God's blessing the saint remained there. A great monastery was founded on the site and to the present day it is inhabited by monastics and visited by pilgrims.
The Lord that fed Israel manna in the desert, Who led the magi with a star also provided for His Saint Theodosius. This good seed thus buried to die in a dry and barren land bears fruit to nourish those who hunger and thirst for righteousness even now, fifteen centuries later.
Who was that blessed king who cried, Oh that I had the wings of a dove to fly into the wilderness? And how shall we escape the snares of civilization to search out the treasures hidden in the wilderness? Daniel in great Babylon withdrew to his private room three times a day and prayed towards Jerusalem. Peter in Joppa went up onto the roof-top of the house where he was guest to pray at noon.
We have no need to look far away for a desert to explore for buried treasure, not even so far as around or outside our own selves. Look to the wilderness within, that barren and uncultivated waste overgrown with thorns and infested with wild beasts of prey and venomous creeping things.
Our self, our wonderful, unsurpassed and lovable self-a desert? Drill deep with the bit of repentance through the layers of hard, unfeeling rock to strike rich oil fields of humility. Ignited by a divine spark, they will illumine the night for you; poured on troubled waters they will provide calm. Irrigate those wind-blown sands with tears of compunction and see what blossoms cover its barren stretches like a living blanket, how roots once given moisture spread to stabilize those shifting contours. Keep and cultivate this desert turned garden and you also will find trees there planted by the hand of God and rivers that spring up to water the whole earth.
These are the proofs of the truth we celebrate. Everyone can delight in a good meal or a happy celebration, but it is the Christian who rejoices in the Cross, in dying for his Lord, in enduring afflictions for His sake, in offering Him a measure of patience and long-suffering, following in His footsteps from the cave of Bethlehem, through the towns and wilderness to Jerusalem, to Golgotha, to the Mount of Olives, to the Throne of Glory. In the Incarnate Word, perfect Man and perfect God, our mortal life on earth takes on a new dimension. In Him the bonds of time and space are shattered; death itself becomes transparent. Eternity and God's unbounded grace and goodness are ours to partake of to the measure that we choose.
Let us not be deceived. Let us not be seduced or swindled. We must choose. We must stay alert. We must struggle and invest and cultivate. We must actively partake. The desert is calling us. Our response is what we do right now.