Matthew tells us today that 'Jerusalem, all Judaea and the region around the Jordan' were going out to John. Where was he? He was in the wilderness, the desert, the place of beginnings where God first wooed his bride Israel before leading her through the waters of the Jordan to the Promised Land which was to be their marriage bed.
What is so attractive about John? He utters the seductive promise that has a mesmeric effect. He tells the people, 'you can begin again, you can change; it is not all hopeless; you can start again.' The past cannot be erased, it cannot be made to disappear, but it can be refashioned, it can be healed, damaged beauty can receive a new design.
This is not just a nostalgic pilgrimage, it is not a trip down memory lane; it demands something from all who embark on it. Going out, tearing yourself up by the roots is not an easy business. All of these people who are coming out to John to relive the beginnings of the Exodus are turning their backs on something. They are leaving behind Judah and Jerusalem, the monarchy and the Temple, the two most powerful symbols of God's choice of Israel his bride; the signs of his active presence amongst them. In coming out to John they are committing themselves once more to the search for the living God. They will build his Temple and find their king in the wilderness, the place of beginnings. This means that they will become strangers in their own land, aliens in the midst of their own people. Their Exodus will effectively be an exile. They will be internal exiles in the society in which they live.
Exodus and Exile are two sides of the same coin in the experience of the people of Israel. As the Exodus was the leading into the Promised Land from captivity, so exile is the leading out of the Promised Land into captivity. As the people languished in exile in Babylon they struggled to understand what had happened to them. Where was God in all of this? In fact, the exile was one of the most productive theological, liturgical and spiritual experiences of the people. What it gave them was a humble, contrite heart, a pure heart.
Sometimes, as Catholic Christians, our experience is not so different from those who flocked into the wilderness to catch the prophetic voice of John with his talk of new beginnings as it was born on the wind. If we want to begin again, if we want to respond to the voice, we have to become resident aliens, internal exiles. That experience can hit us hard. We are not used to it. At times in the past we enjoyed belonging. The trouble with assimilation is that the terms under which a minority is accepted by the powerful and vocal agents of assimilation are always changing. In the end you can only really belong if you stop being yourself entirely. It is then that Exodus is replaced with Exile, the coin is reversed.
Those who went out into the wilderness, believing in John's promise of beginning again, took up the cross of exile, of not belonging. Embarking on the Exodus of Exile; they went in search of truth even to admitting the truth about themselves: they confessed their sins.
Exile is not easy, beginning again is not easy, the French have a saying c'est le premier pas qui coûte - it is the first step of a journey which counts. There is a Hindu saying, take one step towards God and he will take ten steps towards you. Let us, this Advent, take the first step, let us make the journey and embrace the exile, let us walk in the truth, then shall we find what the people of Israel found that God was not only in the Exodus but in the Exile, they were not only blessed in the Exodus but also in the Exile.