“The Christian calendar,” as Richard Rodriguez writes, “has two ‘deserts’ ― Advent and Lent―two penitential preludes to the great feasts of Christmas and Easter.” When I was a kid, I lived in Saudi Arabia, in the heart of the Arabian Desert. At its center, there is a place called the Rub’al-Khali―“the Empty Quarter”―one of the largest continuous bodies of sand in the world. I remember camping there numerous times. Spiritually, the seasons of Advent and Lent, seasons spent in the desert of the soul, thus have particular resonance for me. I recognize vividly the aridity, barrenness, thirsting that these seasons evoke. In the lectionary reading for today from Psalm 126, the psalmist fondly remembers a time in the distant past when God “restored the fortunes of Zion.” He writes:
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
Yet, the psalmist now pleads: “Restore our fortunes, Lord, / like streams in the Negev”― the Negev being the great desert that spans the southern part of modern-day Israel. In times like these, our seasons in the desert, the psalmist’s plea is no doubt our own: Lord, let the streams return! And yet, like the psalmist, we too must look to collective memory for strength and guidance. We take heart knowing that even in these arid times, God’s faithfulness endures, God’s call to us persists, God’s Kin-dom is gathering strength ready to burst forth once more. Sometimes our faith must fall back upon the strength of collective memory. As Christians, the simple way of Christ is our inheritance, the gift both of the Spirit and of our history, a gift which we are called to bear into the world in times of feast or famine, through lush valleys or desert plains.
Lord, as we muddle on through this Advent season, prepare our hearts and strengthen us for the work of your Kin-dom. Touch us with the joy of your Spirit and the bright memory of your Son’s revelatory life, even as we struggle through the stark, barren seasons of our lives. Amen.
~ Ben Self