As I began to ponder today’s assignment, I realized that when I think of wilderness, connotation is everything. My husband’s idea of wilderness is the Canadian tundra, hundreds of miles from civilization. The most common Google images contain mountain vistas with trees, and the photos on wilderness adventures.com depict beautiful vistas of snow-covered peaks and steep crags and oceans at sunset. By contrast, I understand that Jesus spent his forty wilderness days in the Judean desert, and even the Spanish and French versions of today’s word are cognates of desert.
For me, though, the idea of wilderness connotes being trapped by the landscape, and a significant part of that entrapment is a lack of direction, the inability to see before me or behind me. It is a thick forest with close, tall trees that block the sun and dense underbrush. When I first moved from the Sonoran Desert to the Southern Piedmont–after an initial but brief enchantment with green–I felt that North Carolina was one huge wilderness. A friend visiting from Colorado articulated this sense: “There are so many TREES! How do you know where you’re going?” Although my list of uncompleted travel destinations includes New York City, I suspect it would feel like a wilderness to me as well.
Thus, when I perceive wilderness around me, what I need is vision and clarity; what I seek is a path. Advent is our annual path to Jesus, and it is full of light.
I have forgotten one thing, though. My most important lesson for today comes as an afterthought. All the meanings of wilderness include one common theme: We are alone there. The most important message of Advent is that we are never alone.