Gospel: Mark 1:1-8
What recent advertising pitch or headline sticks out in your memory? Why is it memorable?
Screaming headlines. Catchy advertising. Sound bites. Cliches. Why does some information (or lines from popular songs) remain in our memory? With the saturation of information in today's culture and our short attention spans, some things or events stand out in our minds. Usually, these memories stay with us because they symbolize a deeply felt need. A happy tune reflects a carefree attitude. A dire headline evokes feelings of shared grief or fear.
One of the most deeply felt needs is hope, the chance for a better day. The beginning of Mark's gospel not only announced a time of hope, it proclaimed Good News. A time of God's coming presence.
1 The good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, began this way.
2 God spoke through the writings of the prophet Isaiah:
Look! I am sending my messenger to walk in front of you.
He will prepare the way for you.
3 He is one voice in the desert shouting his message:
Get the way ready for the Lord!
Make it easy for him to arrive!
4 John appeared as the one who baptized in the desert. He told everyone, "Return to God and be baptized! Then, he will forgive you."
5 People from all over Judea, including Jerusalem, went to see John. As these people admitted the bad things they did, they were baptized by John in the Jordan River.
6 John wore clothes made from camel hair and had a leather pack around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He always preached, "Someone more powerful than I is coming after I leave. I am not worthy to bend down and untie his sandal straps. 8 I baptized you with water, but he will baptize you in God's Holy Spirit!"
1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 Just as it has been written in Isaiah the prophet:
"Behold, I send my messenger before you
who will prepare your way.
3 A voice crying out in the desert:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight!'"
4 He appeared, John, the one baptizing in the desert and announcing a baptism of change for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And, all the Judean countryside and all the citizens of Jerusalem traveled to him. And they were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. 6 And John was clothed in (a tunic and robe made from) camel hair and a leather belt around his waist, and (he) was eating wild locusts and honey. 7 And he preached, saying, "The one stronger than I comes after me. I am not worthy, bending down, to loosen the straps of his sandals. 8 I baptized you in water, but he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit."
1:2 " . . . before you . . . " is literally " . . . before your face . . . " an idiomatic expression meaning presence.
1:7 The possessive pronoun "whose" is not translated. And alternate translation makes the sentence a clause of previous sentence. "The one stronger than I comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy, bending down, to loosen."
1:8 "I baptized you . . . he will baptize you . . . " This comparison can refer to the past ministry of John and the future ministry of the Messiah. Or it can refer to the present ministry of John that anticipated the coming ministry of the Messiah. In this second case, the translation should be "I baptize you . . . he will baptize . . . " The Greek verb "baptiso" can be translated either way.
In the gospel for this second Sunday of Advent, Mark introduced the figure of John the Baptist. For Mark, John's appearance signaled the initial proclamation of God's Good News.
Indeed, the key word for Mark was proclamation. In the time of Jesus, both official and unofficial news was communicated via heralds. The local town herald would proclaim news in the marketplace where people met for commerce and socializing. Other people would proclaim views and philosophies in the marketplace like the herald, including Christian evangelists. The contemporaries of Jesus were accustomed to hearing their news in this way.
In addition to the town herald, visiting high officials would send advance men, who would prepare and proclaim the visitation. Such a visit became an event. Consider what happens even today with the visit of the Pope or the President of the United States to a Third World country. Advance people are sent to arrange for meals, accommodations, and itineraries. At the same time, the governments of the countries to be visited begin public work projects. Roads are paved, buildings are painted, bill boards are posted. The advance people work for a smooth and productive visit. The receiving capitol or country puts on its best face in hopes the visiting dignitary will be impressed and bestow political and economic favors. Advance men act as emissaries and spokespersons.
The hopes were the same in the ancient world. The advance men would arrive as emissaries; local officials would prepare for the coming visit. Shrubs and trees would be removed from road way (i.e., the road would be straightened for the visiting dignitary). Another herald would immediately precede (literally walk before) the official to proclaim his arrival, like today's spokesperson.
So, the official herald had three possible functions in the ancient world: proclaim news, act as a mediator between the local populace and the visiting dignitary, and immediately precede the official.
Mark used these three functions as he opened his gospel. The first verse in his Gospel proclaimed the arrival of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. In the title "Christ," Mark saw Jesus as God's chosen, the one who had a unique relationship with God, the one would lead his people (and all peoples) back to God. So Jesus had a title of high honor, a unique status with the ultimate power in the cosmos, and a mission. When his gospel was read at the community worship, the reader proclaimed the story of the Savior, like the local herald shouted out the headlines of the day.
(While the phrase, "Son of God" is not found in all Greek manuscripts, its presence helps to define what the phrase "Christ" meant to early Christians. According to John Pilch, (The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B, Collegeville, MN, The Liturgical Press, 1994, pp. 5), the phrase "son of . . . " meant "having the qualities of . . . " When early Christians referred to Jesus as the Son of God, they not only pointed to Jesus' unique relationship with God, they also referred to Jesus as a divine presence) [1:1]
Next, Mark referred to Isaiah the prophet as the advance man. He actually combined Malachi 3:1 with Isaiah 40:3 and Exodus 23:20 in a creative fashion. By meshing these verses together, Mark was accomplishing two things. First, he invoked the spirit of the Hebrew scriptures. Moses, the prophets, and the other Spirit-lead people of Israel prepared the way for the Messiah. In this sense, they all acted at advance people, as emissaries for God.
Second, Mark used the Old Testament quotation to introduce John the Baptist, the voice crying out in the desert. Here, Mark painted John as a spokesman, a traveling herald that immediately preceded the coming dignitary. (Actually, he took the bible verses to fit John ministry in the desert.) The voice in the desert had to live and act like one who lived in the desert. [1:6] So, Mark used scripture as a reference to and a vehicle of proclamation. The characters in the Bible prepared the way for the Good News. And the verses Mark quotes are themselves Good News. [1:2-3]
Finally, John arrived as the one who preceded the Messiah, proclaiming his immanent arrival. He preached a change of spirit and lifestyle, a metanoia, to straighten the way of the Lord. His words had an effect, for many from far and near went to hear his message. Those he baptized confessed their faults, in the hope that their repentance would lead to a forgiveness of their sins. [1:4-5]
John's words were not God's promise, but a message of anticipation. He was the one to prepare people's hearts through his proclamation. One greater than he would soon visit his people. The mere thought of the coming presence was so overwhelming, it evoked a true sense of humility. [1:7]
John baptized as a promise of liberation in the face of judgment. The Messiah's baptism would be liberation and judgment. Those who received the Messiah would be freed from sin, sickness, and death. Those who denied the Messiah would stand accused by their denial. Why? God's Spirit would liberate from sin and mirror one's denial. In Spirit, one's choice for God freed the sinner. One's turning away from God meant loss of the Spirit. It only confirmed one's character and eternal choice. [1:8]
Catechism Themes: The Mysteries of Jesus' Infancy: The Preparations (CCC 522-524)
Every year, Christians set aside time to anticipate the coming of the Lord. Known as Advent, this time resonants with two themes: anticipation for the Second Coming and the celebration of Christmas. Our waiting echoes the hopes and anxieties of our ancestors in faith: the Israelites. For what we see as two events, they saw as one. The coming of the Messiah would signal the end times, the freedom of God's people and the judgment of those who reject him.
John acted as an Elijah figure. As Elijah was the first of the prophets, John was the last, for he was the "Prophet of the Most High." His ministry prepared the way for the Christ. John fashioned himself and preached like Elijah, since there was a popular belief that Elijah would return to prepare for the Messiah.
Advent is the season we Christians step into the sandals of the Baptizer. His anticipation becomes ours. His words of reform become our imperative to metanoia. His austerity becomes the challenge to straighten the roads to our hearts. Advent, then, is a celebration of John and his people. It reminds us of our religious roots and the one who pointed the way to our Savior.
How has your prayer life changed in this holiday season? Is your prayer time filled with anticipation or with dread? In other words, is the thought of Christmas cheerful? Or, does the thought of preparation (decorations, present buying, financial stress) get you down? Have you taken the time to hear the words of John and change for the better?
Christianity is a religion of anticipation. We await the coming of the Lord in glory. We also await that magical season of Christmas, a time of peace. At Advent, Christians bridge the past of their Hebrew fathers in faith with their future expectations for the Parousia. Jewish expectations become ours. We both await the coming of the Messiah.
When he comes, may we, like Mark, proclaim faith through our words and actions.
Think of one or two things you have done in the past week that communicates to others what is in your heart. Thank God if your "proclamation" led others to him. Ask God for forgiveness if you scandalized others. Now, plan one or two ways you can "proclaim" Christ to others this week.