The "sacred geography" of Lent is one way to chart the pilgrim journey through the Season of Lent. "By the solemn 40 Days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert." (Catechism #540) The basic spiritual landscape, so to speak, that we enter into during Lent is the desert. You may go here and here to read more about what a desert experience is like. The point, however, is to be with Jesus in the desert, whether it is the spiritual desert of Lent or one of our personal "deserts of crisis" in life.
The First Sunday of Lent describes how Jesus is led into the desert after his Baptism at age 30. That Baptism was a "spiritual high" for him: the Holy Spirit descended upon him and the Voice of the God the Father was heard declaring, "This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased."
Yet after this high-point in the life of Jesus, he goes into the desert and is tempted by the devil. We might take note that often in life a high-point may be followed by a low-point.
It is curious that in our "sacred Lenten geography," on the Second Sunday of Lent, we are given the image of going up a mountain. Obviously, there are mountains in deserts. Just as deserts correspond to spiritual and personal conditions, so mountains also do the same. Mountains are places one ascends, getting closer to the heavens. In many religions, mountains are sacred places where one can get closer to God. Mountains are also places of greater vision: obviously, you can see further on the top of the mountain than in the valley. Mountains can be places of sacrifice to God.
In the Old Testament, mountains serve all these functions. It was on Mt. Zion, in Jerusalem, that Solomon built the Temple where sacrifices were made to God. It was on a mountain that Moses encountered God in the burning bush (Exodus 3) and later Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to receive the Covenant of God’s love for God’s People (Exodus 31:18). It will also be on a mountain, at the end of his life, that Moses will see the Promised Land but not enter it. (Deuteronomy 34:1-6)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. alluded to this last passage in a famous and even prophetic speech he gave in 1968: "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! "(April 3, 1968)
The mountain mentioned on the Second Sunday of Lent is the mountain Jesus went up, with his disciples Peter, James and John. Luke’s Gospel, read this year, says that Jesus went up to the mountain to pray. It was while in prayer that he was transfigured in the sight of these three disciples.
One of the disciplines of Lent is to renew and increase our prayer. Only in prayer, both liturgical and alone, do we encounter God and receive his vision and are lifted up by his Presence. The mountain reminds us that whenever we are in a desert, we need to take time to go up the mountain to pray. It leads to transformation. It was also on that Mountain of Transfiguration that God says about Jesus once again: "This is my Beloved Son! Listen to him." In prayer, we rediscover God's love for us as did Jesus.
So, as soon as we enter the spiritual desert of Lent, the Church reminds us that we are not always meant to live in the desert, or in a state of wandering and exile, or "mourning and weeping in this valley of tears." God is taking us somewhere, and not to just anywhere, but to the mountain: the mountain of God’s love and the Resurrection life of Christ, which is experienced in part even now. This mountain that we hear about on this Second Sunday of Lent is a place where Jesus is Transfigured (transformed) in glory. The reason, Pope St. Leo the Great says, is this: to strengthen the disciples for the suffering of the Cross by their being able to recall his glory prefigured in the Transfiguration.
In other words, we cannot bear the Cross of Christ unless we are strengthened by his Resurrection, and not a Resurrection just in the future, but even now like a "down payment" of our transfiguration. There is no desert, then, for the disciples of Christ without the mountain; no dying without the rising; no Cross without the promise of the Resurrection. In an excellent book by John Moses titled The Desert: An Anthology For Lent, the author says:
"The desert is never an end in itself. It is a time of preparation, of testing, of transition. The long years of the exodus lead from slavery to freedom.
"The disciplines of prayer and study and fasting have always counted for much in the desert tradition. These ascetical disciplines have been concerned from the beginning to bring under control the appetites of the flesh and to focus the mind on the things of God. But there lies beyond all these spiritual disciplines the vision of a life that is set free and restored and renewed. [St. Irenaeus says:]‘The glory of God is a man or woman who is truly alive.’" (p.20-21)