Father Donald Senior, CP

The desert in bloom

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

Dec. 11: Third Sunday of Advent
Is 35:1-6A, 10; Ps 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10; Jas 5:7-10; Mt 11:2-11

The Advent readings recall some of the Bible’s most powerful symbols of hope. Last Sunday we heard Isaiah’s vision of the “peaceable kingdom” — the longing for the just ruler who would usher in an age of peace and reconciliation that would even quell the violence in nature. Today’s readings offer another of Isaiah’s images of hope — the vision of the desert in bloom.

Anyone familiar with the Middle East knows that water is a precious and rare commodity. Lurking beneath the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is the question of water rights — how to share in an equitable way such a sparse and essential resource. Even with the abundance of water in the United States, we know that California and other western states have had to ration their use of water in a time of severe drought. Over the centuries, the lack of water has surrounded the southern and western borders of Israel with desert areas — parched and with little vegetation or topsoil needed for agriculture. Yet the desert played a key role in the history of the biblical peoples. To reach the promised land of “milk” (cattle grazing) and “honey” (agriculture), they had to face an arduous desert trek. The desert is the “frontier” land where Israel both encountered God in a profound way at Sinai in the forging of the covenant, and was also a place where Israelites grumbled at their plight and rebelled against God and Moses, their Godgiven leader.

All of this is in play to make Isaiah’s vision of a desert in bloom a powerful symbol of hope and renewal. “The desert and the parched land will exult,” Isaiah exclaims. Flowers will bloom in abundance. This transformed desert will rival the beauty of Mount Carmel and Lebanon, where trees and rivers abound. Such lush and unexpected beauty will cause rejoicing: feeble hands will be strengthened; weak knees made firm; those who fear will become strong. It is our saving God who does this, Isaiah affirms. He is the one who transforms Israel and leads the people to enter Zion “singing” and “crowned with everlasting joy.”

As was the case with Isaiah’s vision of a future world of peace and reconciliation, so this lavish portrayal of a parched land blossoming was seen by the early Christians as fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, God’s messenger of peace and beauty.

The selection from Matthew’s Gospel affirms Jesus as the one who fulfills our hopes in another way. John the Baptist, the prophetic forerunner of Jesus, sends messengers from prison to ask the key Gospel question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus answers by telling John to observe what Jesus both says and does: “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.” The words of Jesus are words of truth and inspiration; the actions of Jesus are healing and reconciling.

As we move through Advent, we might make John’s question our own: Is Jesus Christ the One or should we look elsewhere? Can we base the ultimate meaning of our lives on our Christian faith? Or is it an illusion, some sort of fairy tale or whistling in the dark? Is the God proclaimed by Jesus and sustained by our longstanding Christian tradition worthy of our trust and our love?

What strikes me the older I get is the breathtaking beauty of our Christian faith. Its tenacious belief in a God of unconditional love. Its affirmation of the beauty of the human person, made in the image of God. Its expectation that we are to treat each other as children of the one God and therefore reach out in compassion, justice and good faith. In an often divided and even cynical world, our faith in Jesus leads us instead to a spirit of hope that sin and death will be defeated and God’s love will prevail.


  • scripture
  • middle east