It seems a curious thing that John would go off to the wilderness and begin preaching. Wilderness (or ‘desert’ as it might also be translated) conjures up images of vast spaces, untouched and uninhabited. Why would John go to this kind of inhospitable place and to whom did he intend to ‘cry out’ to as Isaiah had prophesied? Matthew offers something of a timeline when he notes that it was after John had gone to this lonely place that ‘then’ Jerusalem and all Judaea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him (Matthew 3:5).
Matthew does not concern himself with the particularities of how the multitudes in the towns and villages came to know of John’s activity in the wilderness. However the emphasis on the wilderness is important nonetheless. Might he be alluding to a spiritual journey of sorts, depicting the need to go to the wilderness of one’s own sinfulness, to the depth of one’s own nothingness and emptiness? There in the depths of that internal desert, faced with a deeper appreciation of the true state of one’s very being, the possibility of an encounter with the author of life itself becomes possible in an otherwise lifeless realm. God works at the deepest level of one’s soul, drawing people to Himself in the same way perhaps that John’s cry in the desert draws people from the surrounding districts.
‘Confession of sin is the testimony of a conscience fearing God’ according to the spiritual writer known as Pseudo Chrysostom. Thus, John’s message of repentance resonated with those people who had first been moved interiorly by God’s promptings. The physical movement away from the usual hustle and bustle of daily life in the towns mirrors that internal movement of the heart. Is it not also this way with regard to the sacrament of confession? The physical journey to the Church follows the internal admission of the need for forgiveness. The sacrament of confession is just that sort of encounter – meeting God in the wilderness. There in the confessional, life and death, forgiveness and sin, light and darkness meet in the most incomprehensible way and yet we can be certain that darkness cannot overpower the light (John 1:5). This is the source of our hope.
Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Let us prepare by allowing ourselves to be moved by God’s grace. By recounting the way John went into the desert, Matthew hints at the way we need to go.
Gospel Reflection for 2nd Sunday of Advent – Year A (Matthew 3:1-12)