The first two Sundays of Lent are always the same. On the First Sunday of Lent we are with Christ in the desert as he fends off Satan’s temptations. On the Second Sunday of Lent we climb the mountain of Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John. Viewed in picture postcard form, deserts and mountains seem to have almost nothing in common. One is flat and dry, and the other is tall and majestic. From an experiential point of view, though, I find that they have a lot in common. They both have the power to humble us.
Hanging on the wall in my office is a poster I purchased many years ago at Zion National Park. It is a photograph of a man fishing in the narrow portion of the canyon that runs through the center of the park. What is striking is that (in the picture) the canyon is 25 inches high and the man is only one inch high. One has to look very carefully and intently to even spot the fisherman standing in the shallow water. Having stood in almost the same spot as the man in the picture, I can tell you that in such a setting we realize what a tiny speck we really are in the universe. What is humbling is that as tiny and insignificant as we are, we are still known and loved by God—known and loved more than we can know and love ourselves. Mary must have felt something like this when God invited her to be the mother of the Messiah. Of all the people who have existed since creation, God chose to zero in on her, an unimportant person in a tiny village in an obscure part of the world.
Most people when they think of Nevada think only of Las Vegas, with its artificial environment, its gambling palaces, and its outsized reproductions of the world’s greatest cities. Head only a few miles out of Las Vegas, however, and one quickly discovers that most of Nevada is unpopulated and most of it is desert. One year for vacation I spent a full two weeks in Nevada, devoting only about a half a day to Las Vegas (and most of that in the airport). The rest of time I went wandering around the state in a rental car, stopping in the smaller cities at night. Yes, at times all the desert scenery got boring, but it was also fascinating to totally immerse myself in this kind of terrain. There are dozens and dozens of ghost towns or near ghost towns in Nevada. Gold or silver or some other precious medal was discovered at some point by a lone miner and people flocked to that spot. They built formidable-looking schools and banks and hotels and homes for the rich and the poor alike; and then the mines played out and the people moved on. Towns were just left behind to decay in the wind and the sand, being reclaimed little by little by the desert that was there before and will be there when all trace of their existence is gone. Some of these old towns have been protected by the state and provide materials for self guided tours, while others are just there—at the end of a dirt road off of a two lane highway. For those of us who live near the center of a big city like Chicago, it is unsettling and humbling to be in a landscape that is so devoid of life and activity. While mountains make us feel small because of their vertical dimension, deserts make us feel small because of their horizontal dimension. I am in the middle of nothing as far as they eye can see, and yet I am still known and loved by God.
Some people think that humility means looking at ourselves through the wrong end of a telescope, that is, making ourselves look smaller. Trips to the mountain and the desert remind us that we do not need the help of a contraption to make ourselves smaller. In the big picture we really are small! That God can live in us and work through us is what keeps us from dropping into nothingness. Acknowledging that is a great way to begin Lent, for it makes us open to real change. We can give something up for forty days, or spend more time in prayer for forty days, or be more generous for forty days; but if we continue to think that life is mostly about me and what benefits me and those like me, we will likely go back to being the same person we were as soon as Lent has run its course. But if we accept that it is God’s vision for us that gives us magnitude and importance, well, there is no telling what might happen. Our attempts to moderate our cravings during Lent can become just a rehearsal for living life in a whole new way.