Romans 15:4-13 / Matthew 11:2-10
What went you out into the desert to see?
When we go to the coffee shop for a cappuccino or a slice of cake, what are we hoping to get? Something warm and tasty to drink, one would imagine, or something sweet and moist to please our taste buds and fill that little space, real or imagined, in our stomachs. When we go to a bar for a drink, or two, or more, what do we seek? The warmth of heart God promised us in the gift of wine, one would hope, and perhaps the joy of the company of others likewise comforted. For these and so many other things we crave and seek, there is or at least can be a perfectly laudable reason, and we can succeed in having our desires fulfilled without derailing our better and broader purposes.
Unhappily, such is often not the case. We seek an elegant cup of coffee not to relax, to warm up, or to wake us up for the morning or mid-afternoon, but for the elegance of it all, the brand, the price tag. We eat the cake because we crave other things in, with, and for our bodies that we refuse ourselves directly, but feed the craving nonetheless askew. We drink to forget, to numb ourselves, thinking our liquid happiness will be a sufficient surrogate for ending our anxieties when sober. We may even seek out things which are not and can never be wholesome for us — titillating gossip, anonymous pairings, images easily found and indulged on the computer, corners cut at the workplace. When we do so, what do we expect to find?
For those without the light of Christ, perhaps the darkness of sin is enough to delude them, even if culpably, that in the coffee, the cake, the bottle, or the unkind word, there really is and can be happiness. They may be so deluded, but they do not remain so for long. However, for those of us who bear within ourselves the light of Christ, what do we hope to find in these distractions? Happiness? Fulfillment? We know that those are only to be found elsewhere, and only by means more suitably wrapped in sackcloth than in fine garments, by paths leading not to the palaces of kings, but to Herod's prison or to Golgotha.
All the same we find ourselves confused. We turn to the comfort of the Scriptures that we might have hope, but all too often these words written for our learning leave us cold and dry. When we turn away from the Scriptures, we may find a temporary solace more easily gained, but how quickly it passes, and with its passing comes the realization that we have taken another step away from the God of patience and of comfort. Why? Why to the words of holy Writ fail to give us comfort? Why do we prefer to waste our time with useless distractions?
The joy of the Scriptures, like all joys, is an acquired taste. It is acquired fundamentally by grace, of course, and so comes to us as gift, but it can be either cultivated or not. The more and more we accustom our souls to find comfort in lesser things, whether legitimate in right proportion or contrary to our good, the less God's inspired word, the less God himself will give us delight. Seen directly, unveiled in the beatific vision, of course, we will have no other desire, but on our journey, God can oddly enough seem like a relative good. He is not, after all, as tasty as a slice of chocolate cake, or at least his savor comes to us in an altogether different way.
This is why Advent is a season of penitence even as it is a season of waiting and expectation. Indeed, it is penitential precisely because we await God's coming. It is a time to remind ourselves of what is true for our whole life, namely, that we need to cultivate our spiritual palates and adjust our spiritual tastes so that, on Christ's return, we will find in him the fulfillment of our desires, and not their frustration.