Tree in winter

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-17
Romans 15:4-9
Matthew 3:1-12

In a Wilderness

"His food was locusts and wild honey."
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The leaves begin to brown and fall. A new cold filters in to gardens and fields that only lately had bloomed. Green stalks turn gray and frail, and many begin to crumble. Flower beds, fluffy and musky just last week, become hard and frost creeps into the ground and then doesn't thaw. Mounds of earth that had given easily under the boot now become rock-hard and must be traversed with care lest you fall and be cut and bruised.

A whole world, lush, green, and fragrant, has vanished. The horizon that had been hidden behind fields overgrown with marsh grass and lupines slowly appears. Soon it will dominate the landscape. It is distant, dusky, and certain. Yes, the world we knew is gone. Our eyes are now on a distance that had been a secret. The effect on the spirit is a turning inward, a greater mindfulness, and long thoughts.

In unexpected ways, the world now gone is a relief. We are relieved of many chores we had in planting and weeding and harvesting and mowing and raking and bailing. There is no fruit to pick nor clean nor box nor sell. We focus now on the simple act of surviving. The firewood was stacked months ago and is now ready to burn. The plow on the truck is oiled, set on its blocks, and is ready to go. Not a bad idea to reach in the jar for a favorite tobacco and ponder over a pipe.

Perhaps we experience each year something very special: what it is like to leave the world we knew and live in the wilderness, alone with God. The people Israel were freed from their endless labors. The many distractions of Egypt receded into an overwrought and overheated background. The smell of spiced foods no longer lingered in the air. The ground was hard beneath their feet. And all around them was something new: distance and horizon. The lucky few who have gone camping in late winter in the the White Mountains, the Adirondacks, or the High Sierras know this freedom. A crew of three or four who hoist sail for ocean crossings know it too. (iPods and smart phones prohibited!) The world with all its business, frettings, and cares is well behind you. Around you is wilderness. And God. It takes a few days for brain noise to die away and for stray thoughts and punch lists to leach out, but in time it does happen. And you find your spiritual concentration to be clearer and deeper than it has in years. For the Holy Spirit is always waiting, shining the like sun, wrote St. Basil the Great, but we must let the rays touch our skin and our souls.

Of course, there are those who will not embrace wilderness or solitude or simplicity. They will war against it, and their minds are never quieted. For them the spiritual journey fades from sight, like so many other life goals and aspirations that were never really begun. But for those who embrace it, the rewards are great, even heavenly.

When we return from the journey, we find that we have been become exquisitely sensitive spiritually even in our five senses. Our filters have been removed, and so much is apt to offend the sensibilities. Thoughtless rudeness, offensive images and speech, the noise of modern life that we learn to live with .... so much would be jarring to a traveler returning from far nature. Such a one was St. John the Baptist. He wore only what nature afforded, like a man returning from the Oregon Trail wearing buckskin. Most remarkable, though, was his diet, for he lived on a kind of manna known as "honey cake" in Greek. It was made from the flower of coriander seed. The Greek word for this "bread of Heaven,"ενκρισ, was very close the Greek word for locust, ακρισ. Our image of him, due to faulty Bible translation, is something akin to a psychotic man living in homelessness. But far from being addled, manic, or psychotic, St. John was praised by Jesus as the greatest man born of woman at the time of his birth. He lived as the people Israel had lived: alone in the wilderness with God. His senses must have been very keen and his knowledge of nature very deep to live as he did. He was a grounded man, full of wisdom, who attracted many younger men who wanted to become like their master. St. John the Evangelist tells us that St. Andrew was one of those disciples.

His senses were indeed exquisitely sensitive. And he saw what those who had never left the cities and towns could not see -- that they had let the dream die within them. They had been born to nobility, to mastery of themselves and their bodies, but they had let the "animal self" within get the upper hand. This had become all too common as the licentious culture of Alexander's empire was supplanted by the no less hedonistic Roman Empire. For the Middle East had for generations spoken Greek and emulated Greek, and later Roman, culture. People all over Judea and beyond were sobered and humbled to see their true image in the reflection of John's clear eyes. "What can I do"? they asked him in urgent tones. And all over Judea, people began their lives anew through the Baptist's holiness movement, baptized into a new life that reclaimed their purity.

Meantime, back in our winter mountains, an outdoorsman completes his second week of hiking and camping in solitude. The idea of this trip came to him several months ago. Once it took root in his mind, it exerted a powerful attraction over him. Like his other brothers, he had moved from the family farm decades ago. He decided to move to San Francisco, where he perceived was the right kind of life. His brothers had gone to Seattle and Los Angeles for similar reasons. In its day his grandfather's orchards had supplied much of the New England with its crisp, sweet apples and fragrant maple syrup. He could remember himself as a boy sitting all night in the sugar house with the grown-ups watching the great steel vat of maple sap simmer and bubble with a fire of split, dried oak beneath it. Outside in the cold, clean air, you could see the Milky Way like ocean froth with a clarity unknown in the towns and cities. He would sometimes sit with his grandfather under the family's old prize apple, which had been the original rootstock for the orchards. He wondered now how long ago that tree had been lost. They had buried grandfather near to it.

Coming over a ridge he could see the old orchards now -- overgrown, blasted by neglect and hard winters. On closer inspection he could see that the house was neglected, too. Yet, he could feel that the porch was still solid and sat on the steps. He pondered the life the family had known here, so simple and right and good. It was the decency of family love and the hard work that keeps you pure. That was the thing. But he could not see its importance then. The life in San Francisco .... well, it was plain that those years had been wasted. And his brothers' lives in Los Angeles and Seattle had not been a blessing to them either and not what Mother and Dad would have admired. He had prospered financially though, and he had reached a point in life when he could strike out in a new direction if he wanted. With those thoughts, he got up and began toward the old tree to say hello to Grandpa. The ground was clear of snow but he could hear the hiss of small, hard crystals brushing past the brown leaves of the orchards. It was a good sound, a sound that comforted him as a boy. Through the gray mist of the light snow, he could see his grandfather's grave and beside was the old tree. It was a stump now, but growing up from it was a very serviceable tree, a shoot that had matured several years in good health, and now with the same genes as the old prize apple. He rested on one knee and gazed at it, and suddenly he realized that he had begun to pray. He prayed over his own life as he held it up to God, and then began speaking to his grandfather in that same mind and tone. He realized that his grandfather was a friend in Heaven, who might encourage him and support him. It was as if, .... as if God has visited him in this place and has spoken to him. "Amen," he said aloud and stood up. It was time to call his brothers. They need to wake up. There is so much ahead to do. Amen.