Saturday, February 25, 2012

Quenching our Thirst in the Desert (Lent 1B)

People sometimes think I run the show at Christ the Redeemer. Sometimes I even think so myself. But it's not true—I answer to quite a number of bosses in the parish.

Today's homily is proof of that. I wanted to speak about the first and second readings since this week we had a guest speaker at the young men's group who introduced us to the seventeenth-century Jesuit scholar who analyzed the dimensions of Noah's Ark, based on the number of species known in his time, and decided overcrowding wouldn't have been a problem.

Father Athanasius Kircher took the Genesis text so seriously that he even calculated what the daily schedule for the animals must have been.

But at 6:04 last night I got an e-mail from our youth minister, asking me to preach on the Gospel. He did more than that—he told me what he hoped I would say in the homily, so it would fit in with the theme of tonight's youth Mass.

So much for the ark.

Actually, it's pretty easy to make today's Gospel relevant for young people. They all appear to live in a desert—have you noticed how much water they drink? Sometimes I think modern youth are dehydrated; they never seem to go anywhere without a water bottle.

The more I thought about that, the more I realized we all live in the desert, at least some of the time. The sun beats down on all of us, and most of us know what it's like sometimes to feel dry as dust in our spiritual lives.

Young people can lose their way in the desert without landmarks to guide them. Middle-aged people can be wearied by the noonday heat: there are many places in the Scripture that speak of the dangers of night, but Psalm 91 reminds us that the midday sun can also be destructive and make Christians lose heart.

Some find old age a desert, with the landscape around them slowly becoming barren.

Whatever age we are, there are various ways we find ourselves in the desert. Sometimes we are even led there by the Spirit, as Jesus was. We didn't ask for it; we can't explain it; and we don't want to be in a dry and lonely place. But we meet God there, according to his plan for us.

Sometimes we are dumped in the desert by circumstances. We're suffering from the death of a loved one, illness, unemployment or some other worry. When we look around we can't see a flower or a tree, just a lot of prickly cactus bushes.

Temptations, too, can be a desert. One day we're hiking up the spiritual mountain, enjoying the view, and then all of a sudden life is bleak, and we're dying for something to relieve the monotony.

There's one thing these different desert experiences have in common: they all make us thirsty. Dryness creates desire.

But here's the important thing: there's nothing wrong with being thirsty, as long as you have something to drink. Thirst in itself isn't bad; in fact, when you're thirsty, there's nothing better than a cold glass of water. The feeling is good. The water refreshes us.

Of course we can try to quench our thirst with the wrong things. Some drinks will make us thirstier in the long run. But if we drink from the stream of life—if we drink the living water that Jesus promises—our thirst will have done us good.

So there's nothing necessarily wrong about the desert. Just as thirst reminds us how much we depend on water, so the deserts of temptation and trial remind us how much we depend on grace.

We usually think of temptations negatively, and focus on our failures or on how close we come to falling. But there is a positive way to consider temptations: they can also be seen as a test that, if successfully overcome, strengthens the Christian to put up a better fight for the Lord.

During those 40 days in the desert, Jesus showed us what he was made of; when we overcome temptation, we show ourselves—and Jesus too—the strength of our inner core.

I've talked about a number of the ways we can find ourselves in the desert. But sometimes we decide to spend time in the desert. That's what Lent can be: we leave the "city" of our selfishness and retreat to the "desert" of our hearts. We freely chose to step back from rushing around in what we call the "real world" in order to have time and energy for the things that matter most.

All of this presumes we are ready to drink from Christ. It is said "when we drink from the world, we always thirst again, when we drink from Christ, we never thirst again." In a world full of temporary things, we'll find temporary satisfaction. Jesus alone satisfies the longing of the heart, and satisfies it reliably, consistently, and eternally.

But he doesn't give us his living water in plastic bottles. We must meet him personally where he can be found—and the desert is one sure place to find him.


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