2nd Sunday of Advent Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11 2 Peter 3:8-14 Mark 1:1-8
FOR TODAY'S gospel, the Church starts us at the very beginning of Mark; and it should be remembered that in the ancient world books did not have chapter-headings (or chapters, for that matter), titles, Or dust-jackets to give you an idea of what kind of thing you were reading.
So the reader had to know right from the beginning what it was he had picked up, and therefore these few lines that make up today's gospel tell us an enormous amount about what Mark thought he was doing.
He starts by making it quite clear that what is to follow is not history or biography or a newspaper report, but is already written for believers, and from the standpoint of faith: so "so beginning" will have reminded his readers of the opening phrase of the Bible. What is begun here is "the gospel" or (as the word really implies) "the good news".
Mark was, so far as we know, the first to write a gospel; it was he who invented the form, and he deserves our enormous gratitude for this astonishing literary medium whereby the Jesus-faith was principally proclaimed and spread. In following Mark's gospel through in the course of the coming year we shall slowly come to appreciate that it is not so easy to say what precisely a gospel is; but we should at least have grasped some of its principal features.
The central feature is of course that it is, as the text continues, "of Jesus Christ"; in other words, a gospel proclaims that the wandering Carpenter of Nazareth, a healer and somewhat maverick religious teacher who challenged the religious and political establishments of his day, and died of it, is none other than the Anointed of God, the fulfillment, astonishing though it may seem, of God's promises to his people.
It is not clear whether or not Mark also wrote at this point "Son of God"; some of the important manuscripts of the gospel have the phrase, while others do not. In a sense it is unimportant, for Mark certainly believed that Jesus was Son of God; his whole gospel is given over to a demonstration of the remarkable way in which he understood this idea.
Next Mark goes on to underline how fully Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promises. Rather confusingly, he switches his attention to John the Baptist, whom he introduces with an immensely solemn quotation, composed partly from Isaiah and partly from Malachi.
The solemnity, the religious atmosphere of these lines, show how different a thing is a gospel from anything that has previously been attempted. But there is no other way to approach it, for the presence of God among men is a very
solemn topic indeed.
Knowing, as all Mark's readers do, that in a few lines Jesus will appear on the scene, we can only treat with very great awe the exhortation to "prepare the way of the Lord": "the Lord" is the title of the most high God, and the tiny changes Mark has made in the quotation underline that God has given Jesus an unutterably (and a Jew would have found it impossible to utter} exalted status.
It is not however a message that keeps humanity at a distance, as though it might be too holy for ordinary mortals. For "the whole area of Judaea, and all the Jerusalemites went out to him", in response to John's preaching of a baptism of repentance, confessing their sins, and getting baptised by him in the river Jordan.
John himself signals the oddity of what is coming into the world by the oddity of his garb and diet: camel-hair and a leather girdle and locusts and wild honey, show a contempt for this world's riches and suggests
that the important action lies elsewhere.
At the heart of his proclamation is that another is coming, "the one mightier than I, the buckle of whose shoes I am not worthy to undo". Loftiest of all, this mighty one baptises not with water, but with the Breath of God, Mark's readers, today as in his day, must never be allowed to forget that Good News is something that has never been written before.