born in wilderness
Fr. Matt Holland, SJSenior Pastor | St. Leo Catholic Church
From Matthew 3:1-12
I often take a well-worn path from St. Leo church to a certain coffee roaster I frequent to fuel my caffeine addiction. It’s good to be out and about, to see people waiting for busses or making their way along sidewalks aided by canes or pushing grocery carts with all their worldly belongings. I see tents and needles and the discarded blankets of people with no place to call home. After a while this seems all too common, until I don’t even notice it. I’m fine and comfortable within my narrow horizons.
Then something happens. The Baptist appears yelling in the wilderness telling us to repent. I wonder: Of what? How? How am I supposed to change?
In the middle of one such walk, I spied a babydoll face down in the lawn, except the face and the entire head of the doll lay detached and apart from the body, like something left in the wake of the character Sid from the movie Toy Story. It made me recall a museum of colonial religious art in the town of Popayán, Colombia that I visited in 2012, where I saw the disturbing statues of el niño Jesús crucificado, the innocent Christ child carrying the cross on his little back, or perhaps he was nailed to it. This, in turn, reminded me of a strange Christmas poem from the same time period by a Jesuit named Robert Southwell entitled The Burning Babe. When John yells out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” is this what he had in mind? It’s definitely not the easy way. It’s more than a little bit unsettling and shocking, this foreshadowing of the passion in Advent.
When I finally enter the café I noticed the mounted portrait of Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, a 14 year-old African American who two white men brutally murdered in 1955. In this painting a large wet tear runs down her cheek. This is more what God is like. God who looks clearly and unflinchingly at things as they really are. God who hears the cry of the poor and is moved to tears, who then recklessly shakes up what is familiar and secure to bring forth the new, to make plain human lives divine, to draw near to us and to walk through grief and pain and division and need and to bring us all home together. This is a God who goes through the wilderness, through it all, whatever it is, not around it.
Now is the favorable time, the time of God’s salvation and the baptist is calling me to repent. But of what am I supposed to repent? Maybe it’s the way I see. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe it’s learning to see with new eyes, to behold Christ who is always being born anew. Maybe I am being called to join the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist in crying out from the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Maybe I am being called to walk the crooked path that leads straight through the center of every human heart, and through the cross on the way to resurrection. Maybe this is our baptism. Maybe it’s God who is behaving in a new way, doing something new. Ours is to notice that newness with new eyes and say, “yes.”
Dwelling Among Us
Is there a word or phrase stands out to you? What is it calling forth?
Describe the wilderness that surrounds you. What paths are you being asked to walk, and how do they affect the way you see? What would it mean to repent and see with new eyes?
Find a “wilderness” path in the city and walk it. Maybe it is the waterfront, Swan Creek, or the Tacoma Nature Center, or maybe it’s a walk on Tacoma Ave South through the wilderness of homelessness. Simply walk and get in touch with the wilderness of our city and your own heart. Pray this prayer: Emmanuel who is born in wilderness, come. Help us see and say “yes” to you here.