In the middle of Advent, we encounter John the Baptist in the desert. In fact, every year, Anglicans devote half of Advent to the prophet of the wilderness, John the Baptist.
Yes, Lent is the most obvious wilderness season of the Church’s year—a full 40 days and then some to seek the Lord in the desert with prayer and fasting. But we cannot miss the desert days of Advent.
You cannot take the Advent pilgrimage and avoid the wilderness.
(Note: To learn more about Advent and how to observe it at home with family and friends, read this book!)
Whereas Lent leads us to deny ourselves and take up our cross, Advent leads us to enter the wilderness so we are prepared for the coming of Christ’s kingdom in all its fullness. The desert is a station in the royal procession of the King. John the Baptist echoes Isaiah’s prophecy in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ (Matthew 3.3, ESV).
The desert, of course, is not only significant for John the Baptist’s message of repentance. When John the Baptist appears in the desert, he evokes Moses’ presence with Israel in the desert. When God saved his people from Egyptian oppression, he brought them through the desert. The desert was the place where Israel would learn that this delivering God could be trusted. The desert was that place where God would strip away all the ideas, the idols, the identity they had from Egypt.
You need the desert to learn how to leave the old world behind. That’s what the desert is for. It is not home, but it prepares you for home. The wilderness prepares you to meet the king.
The Anglican writer Paul-Gordon Chandler offers a vivid sense of greeting a king in the wilderness from his years of living in the Middle East. In his book Songs in Waiting: Spiritual Reflections on Christ’s Birth, Chandler notes a Middle Eastern custom of preparing roads before a king’s journey. Roads would be cleaned, new flowers planted, and people would wait for their leader to pass by.
What could this mean for me in the United States? How can I live faithfully enter the desert, practice repentance, and prepare for the coming of King Jesus this Advent?
The Wilderness Nearby
I don’t want to spiritualize the desert straight away. The desert is a real place. Landscapes form the soul. Places matter. But when I look out my window, I see woodlands, not sand.
As I meditate about the importance of wilderness places, I’ve often found inspiration from Celtic Christians in Britain and Ireland who understood their desert was the sea. I don’t live near a desert or a sea, but woodland areas and mountains are local wilderness places for me. These are the local, rugged places of solitude and silence where I can listen to the voice of the Lord.
In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry contends that the wilderness trains one in humility, that “by understanding accurately his proper place in Creation, a man may be made whole.” Wilderness landscapes shape the soul, purifying one’s vision and perception to return home with a renewed commitment to virtue. “Returning from the wilderness,” Berry notes, “(a man) becomes a restorer of order, a preserver. He sees the truth, recognizes his true heir, honors his forebears and his heritage, and gives his blessing to his successors. He embodies the passing of human time, living and dying within the human limits of grief and joy.”
These isolated landscapes prepare us for both holy living and holy dying. We need the wilderness to prepare for the advent of the Lord.
Learning Spiritual Geography in Advent: Spend an Hour in the Wilderness
There is a mystery of encountering God within the wilderness. Sometimes he speaks words we could not hear in the noisy world we inhabit; sometimes he speaks nothing at all. Either way, going out to meet the Lord in the wilderness trains us in faithfulness and intensifies our communion with Christ.
It would be ideal if you can take an Advent retreat for a whole weekend, but most people don’t have that time with many December commitments. A weekend retreat may not be possible, but that doesn’t mean that you’re unable to enter a local wilderness and listen to the Lord’s voice.
Even one hour in a nearby wilderness can center your soul in the Lord’s presence, to sharpen your perception about what really matters in this life. Even one hour can bear great fruit towards holy living and holy dying.
I have made it a priority to find local places of solitude in the twelve years I have served my parish. I actually believe this is part of my pastoral work—to enter the wilderness and to know our wilderness places well enough to commend them to others. The conservationist Wes Jackson advocates the virtue of “becoming native to one’s place.” I believe becoming native to my parish means knowing and inhabiting local places of solitude nearby. If I’m only seeking spiritual renewal on a retreat in a remote location, I will slowly develop the sense that God can only renew my soul when I leave my hometown.
I have great affection for an arboretum only 20 minutes from my doorstep. I remember several years ago praying the Phos Hilaron at sundown on a secluded bench there. It was the first time I had been able to worship after months of being unable to pray. That bench has become like the stone of Ebenezer for me, a physical memory that God will be faithful through the seasons of spiritual darkness.
These days, if I only have an hour, I know where I can go. Ten minutes from my house, I walk along a wooded pathway. I have entered the quietness of those woods, where the white oaks and hickory trees lift my eyes and heart to the beauty and presence of the Lord. Those woods are healing my soul from distraction.
I have set up a camping chair in open meadows and the shoreline of lakes and local streams, listening for the Lord’s voice. These are not costly or lengthy excursions: a coat (if needed), a camping chair (maybe), and an hour (more if you have the time). You’re ready to walk out the door.
Advent teaches us a spiritual geography, and it’s not far away. I love the natural beauty of my native East Tennessee, but I’ve seen the Lord’s natural beauty around this country.
Become native to the wilderness in your parish. All you need is a secluded space nearby—even a copse of trees will do—to go out and meet the Lord in a local wilderness.
When you get there, simply ask our Lord one question, the question of repentance: where would you have me change my life for your sake?
And there, in a wilderness nearby—a wilderness to which you belong—listen for the still, small voice of the Lord who calls you home.