Sunday, February 12, 2006

Desert Places

I've decided to break my haitus with a quick reflection on the readings today, which struck me as something worthy of holding onto for a while past the day. I will hopefully be blogging more as time goes on, now that my schedule is a little calmer, so stay tuned!

Desert Places
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars - on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
Robert Frost had a knack for describing universal human experiences in short terms, and these words from his 1936 poem, Desert Places, are no exception. Occasionally, we all feel alone and deserted, even sometimes (Frost might say most times) in a crowd.

Today’s Gospel is a great story, and is masterfully composed by St. Mark. In it, we find a leper, an outcast from the community as prescribed in the Mosaic law of the first reading, genuflecting in front of our Lord and asking to be made clean. The Lord is touched by this display, and does not chastise him for having broken the law. Instead, Christ reaches out and touches the man to heal him. In doing this, Christ Himself becomes “unclean” in the eyes of the Old Law.

After the man goes off, spreading abroad the news of what has just occurred, we are told by the Evangelist that Christ could no longer enter a town openly; rather, He remained outside in "deserted places", where people continued coming to him “from everywhere.” Notice that Mark doesn’t give a specific reason for Christ’s seclusion. Of course, we infer that this is because He would be thronged by crowds seeking miracles. And yet, the writer's ambiguity is a great literary cleverness: in the first part of the reading, a leper “comes to the Lord” from his own exiled place in the desert, but after Christ makes contact with the man it is He who remains in the desert while people come to Him. This is not to say that Christ was, in fact, prevented from entering towns due to his “unclean” status under the law - surely, the Mosaic law hadn’t stopped Him from performing the healing, so it is probably safe to assume that it was, in this case, abrogated. My point is this: the Biblical writer wants to draw a parallel between Christ and the leper.

What is this connection? It is a theme of the Gospel, the radicality of which we all too often fail to appreciate. It is a theme that can be expressed in a question: to where, or to whom, does Christ come?

As Christians, we are used to associating the text of Isaiah 40 with John the Baptist: “A voice of one crying out in the desert: prepare the way of the Lord.” However, this rendering of the text is a reinterpretation by the authors of the New Testament; in its original context, there is an additional meaning, one surely recalled alongside the reinterpretation in the synoptics. This text, as written in the Hebrew Scripture, reads: “A voice of one crying out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord.” Yes, John’s voice was indeed found with his person in the physical wilderness. But, the prophet's message to prepare for the Messiah also points to the deserted places in our world and in each of us.

To where, or to whom, does Christ come? As the second reading today brings out, reflected in the example of the Apostle Paul, Christ came to everyone. He came to free the enslaved, to ransom the hostage, to seek out the wandering sheep, and to recall to society those sojourning in the desert. Emblem of the entire people of Israel, indeed of all sinful people, the leper's disfigurement has separated him from meaningful relationship and contribution to society. But the leper knew that Christ could restore him to health, and more importantly, to reconciliation among his brethren in the law.

In the spiritual life, we can often feel like the speaker in Frost’s poem: we all have desert places inside ourselves that need refreshment and healing. Temptation to pride will often make us deny these places inside ourselves; or, worse, we can acknowledge them but presume them, somehow, to be beyond reach for our merciful Savior. Yet Christ reaches out His healing hand even to where custom would bid Him not go. He does not disdain being among us, like us in all things but sin, to show us how to be more like Him, Who perfectly reflects the Father. Christ has seen and shone His light in the darkest corner of this world, and there is no part of us that is inaccessible to His love. By humbling Himself to fully experience human life, eloquently evidenced by His words of desolation on the Cross, Christ has brought life even to the desert places of our world, and has given us a means to be restored to our fellow men, and Him, in the new and eternal law of His love.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Joe!
Beautiful reflection. No one is alone -- as in "desert"-ed, except in our own hearts when we take our eyes of the Kingdom. "I will lure her into the desert where I will speak to her heart..." [Hosea]. You are not alone.
In Peace, Ged.

2/18/06, 11:38 AM  
Blogger Philologia said...

Thats an awesome reflection. Your site actually inspired me to start my own... So I look forward to reading yours.

3/15/06, 9:35 PM  

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