The Voice In The Desert
Reflection on Mark 1:1-8
The eastern horizon pales, then slowly warms to oranges and reds, signaling an end to the night’s chill. It also presages another sweltering day in the rocky wilderness. And what does the day hold? Foraging for food, namely, catching locusts and gathering honey—hopefully without too many bee stings. Mainly, though, the day will be spent in prayer. John will pray, shake off slumber, call upon the Lord, wait for Him to speak. There are times of dryness in prayer. There are hours when the mind returns to the discomfort of the desert heat like a fly to honey. Sometimes, he must shoo distractions a hundred times and more. There are days when he fights discouragement or the temptation to give us because the Lord is silent. Yes, prayer is a battle. And without the comforts of a home, of family, of village life, distractions are laid bare and temptations cannot be glossed over.
The days pass into years; John perseveres in his life of prayer and penance, day in and day out. And then one day, something new happens: The Lord gives the Forerunner a prophetic word. “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert” (Lk. 3:2). This is not a message just for him; it is for all people. God has been forming John through his solitary life in the desert, and now He sends John forth, as a Voice to proclaim the coming of the Word.
“One mightier than I is coming after me,” the Baptizer announces. “I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit” (Mk. 1:7-8).
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In the Gospels, we encounter John the Baptist as a baby and then as he becomes a public figure. All we know about the intervening years is that “he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel” (Lk. 1:80). What happened in those years? I imagine John the Baptist’s life was routine. Austere, yes; unusual, certainly; but largely unexciting. It is reasonable to guess he spent much time in prayer, for it is clear that the Baptizer was a man of prayer, a man attentive to the Lord. A prophetic message does not come to one who is not listening. Surely John knew the ups and downs of life. And he was faithful, he waited upon the Lord, he listened, he persevered. Thus, he was ready to receive the Lord’s word.
In Advent, we often complain that our lives are too busy…with shopping, Christmas parties, preparations and the like. This year, we have a unique opportunity to spend Advent in a more contemplative way. With travel restrictions, fewer events (by far), and more time at home, this potentially opens up the time for prayer that many of us have longed for in previous years. So I’d like to offer a challenge this Advent—to turn off the phone, the TV, the I-pad, the music, the news. What if we spend our time, freed up as we are from the usual social events, in prayer? Instead of listening to the media, we could listen to God’s Word in the Scriptures. This Advent could be a mini-desert for us, a “retreat” where we allow the Lord to form our hearts. Let us take advantage of this time, then, to prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight His paths in our souls, that we may be ready to receive Him when He comes.
In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. –Is. 40:3-5
Sr. Cecilia Francis, CFR