I used to feel sorry for John the Baptist, living as he did in the hot desert, with nothing but grasshoppers and honey for food. As a Boy Scout, however, I was a beekeeper with three hives that I managed while in high school, so I’m a big fan of honey. But it wasn’t until I lived in Uganda that I learned to like grasshoppers. There is one species of grasshopper that appears twice a year at the start of the two rainy seasons. They swarm and fly to differently parts of Uganda, landing wherever they choose. They only stay for a few hours but when they arrive it’s like Christmas morning. People stop what they are doing and gather them up into gunny sacks like manna from heaven. They are cooked in their own natural oil, and all that is added is a little salt and chopped onion. They are a tasty and healthy snack and I got quickly addicted to them.
People went out in droves in the Judean desert to see this curious man named John the Baptist, dressed up in clothing made of camel’s hair and a leather belt. He generated as even more excitement than grasshoppers descending on a Ugandan village. Jesus, too, went out to see him and to be baptized. Jesus also spent time in the desert before inaugurating his mission.
The desert has always had an attracting power for people in search of God. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it wasn’t long before men and women escaped into the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. They are known as the desert fathers and mothers and one of my favorite books is called, The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century, by Thomas Merton.
The desert is a place for wrestling with inner demons, for emptying oneself, and for finding the small, still voice of God deep within one’s heart. There are very few distractions in the desert so a person cannot hide from anything. The false self is faced so that the true self in Christ can emerge. You either go mad in the desert or you experience a conversion.
This Advent we are invited to go into the desert with John the Baptist. We should give ourselves the gift of 10-15 minutes each day for prayer and meditation. It should be at a time and place where no one can interrupt us. The goal is repentance, which means to have our whole way of thinking transformed into Christ’s way of thinking. The goal is to discover what divine love is. Only then will we understand the true meaning of Christmas.