The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (NRSV)
1. Matthew 3:1-12, Luke 3:1-20 and John 1:19-28 all have versions of this same story with reference to the prophecy of Isaiah and its fulfilment in John the Baptist.
2. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark has no infancy narrative. Mark plunges straight into the adult life and ministry of Jesus.
3. St Augustine (De consensus evangelistarum 1.2.4) declared that Mark was primarily a follower of Matthew. This view became standard in Christian history until the 19th century. In fact Matthew includes roughly 90% of Mark, lending some plausibility to Augustine’s view. However, modern scholarship has radically changed that perspective: “Since the rise of historical criticism the situation could not be more different. Virtually every major movement in the modern study of the Gospels has emerged in dialogue with Mark. Of particular importance was the development of the ‘Two-Source’ hypothesis regarding the Synoptic Gospels. …. Basically the Two-Source hypothesis argues that Matthew and Luke used as written sources the Gospel of Mark and another source called Q (from the German Quelle meaning ‘source’). This latter source consists of roughly 335 verses, mostly sayings of Jesus, that Matthew and Luke share in common but that are not found in Mark. Many considerations have been adduced and debated, consisting of literary observations, logic of usage, and theological concerns, to argue that Mark is thus the earliest gospel so that, in effect, Matthew and Luke remain its earliest commentaries. Most New Testament scholars favour the priority of Mark on the basis of certain ways in which Matthew and Luke are related to Mark. Generally Matthew and Luke follow the Markan order of events and actual wording, and when they diverge from Mark they rarely agree in their divergences. This suggests that Matthew and Luke must not have known each other, and that they used Mark and Q independently” (John R Donohue and Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Liturgical Press, 2002, 4.)
4. In the late 19th century there was a widely held view that the Gospels are “artless writings” (Donohue and Harrington, op cit, 12.) The distinguished Oxford literary critic, Helen Gardner, countered this view in her 1959 work, The Business of Criticism: “Reading the Gospel (of Mark) is like reading a poem. It is an imaginative experience. It presents us with a sequence of events and sayings which combine to create in our minds a single complex and powerful symbol, a pattern of meaning. Reading St Mark is quite unlike reading a series of entries made by a compiler of annals, or a collection of separate anecdotes.” (Cited by Donohue and Harrington, op cit, 12.)
5. Mark is the only one to use the singular noun euangelion (εὐαγγέλιον) (ie good news or gospel) and he uses it seven times (1:1, 14 & 15; 8:35; 10:29; 13:10; 14:9). Mark did not invent the term though, as the same noun is found on an inscription dating from 9 BCE announcing the birthday of Augustus. A plural form of the noun is found in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew root bsr which is used of a joyful or important message delivered by a designated messenger – for example 1 Samuel 31:9; Nahum 1:15; Jeremiah 20:14-15. St Paul, however, gives the term a distinctive Christian focus, using it more than sixty times to speak of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – for example, 1 Thessalonians 1:2-9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Romans 1:1. “If, as is highly likely, Mark knew the Pauline tradition, then theologically Mark’s Gospel can be understood as the proclamation of the Christ event in narrative form.” (Donohue and Harrington, op cit, 14.)
6. In Mark’s Gospel, the various people associated with Jesus – including the disciples until after the resurrection – do not seem to know who he is. Yet Mark begins be telling the reader precisely who Jesus is – he is “the Christ” (Messiah, Anointed One) and he is “Son of God”. It is as if the reader is let in on a secret. This adds to the drama and the sense of tragedy, as the story unfolds. “As the Pauline letters show, by Mark’s time, ‘Jesus Christ (=Messiah)’ had become virtually a proper name.” (Donohue and Harrington, op cit, 60.) The title “Son of God” is omitted here in some manuscripts. However there seems to be good reason to include it, given Mark’s use of the title in other places. Mark uses this title or variations of it as a description of Jesus a number of times – for example ‘beloved (or only) son’ (1:11; 9:7; 12:6), ‘the Son’ (13:32), ‘Son of God’ (3:11), ‘Son of the Most High God’ (5:7), ‘son of the blessed one’ (14:61), and ‘a (or the) Son of God’ (15:39). The last mentioned is the affirmation of the centurion at the foot of the cross – the title then is used at the beginning and end of the story of Jesus according to Mark. “The introduction of Jesus by these titles also immediately shows that the writer proceeds out of adoration for Jesus, and that the work is written not from the standpoint of unconcerned historical observance but with deeply religious interests in mind. (L W Hurtado, Mark, Baker Books, 2011, 15.)
7. From the very beginning Mark makes it clear that he regards the Hebrew Scriptures as an authoritative text: “As it is written ….” “Neither Jesus nor John appeared ‘out of the blue’ but, rather, as fulfilment of God’s plan of redemption. This attitude, that the OT is a record of God’s work and plan and that Jesus must be interpreted as fulfilment of the work and word of God in the OT, is reflected throughout the New Testament (NT) writings and received continuing expression as the church used the OT writings as Scripture in its subsequent history. This view is, of course, formally reflected in the inclusion of the OT as part of the Christian Bible—a decision still accepted by all the major branches of Christianity today. The early Christians not only saw Jesus prefigured in certain OT prophecies of a coming redemption, but in addition, they regarded Jesus as the culmination of all God had done in the OT. In this sense, virtually everything in the OT seemed to have anticipated and pre-figured Jesus and thus gained its ‘fulfilment’ in him.” (Hurtado, op cit, 15-16) The Hebrew Scriptures are in fact cited more than 300 times in the Christian Scriptures. In each of the Gospels we see a tension emerging between continuity and discontinuity – Jesus and the work of God in him, represents a fulfilment of the Covenant which is different from what the religious leaders had come to expect.
8. The use of the term eremos (ἔρημος), meaning wilderness or desert, has enormous resonance for the Jews. It recalls the time of wandering in the desert – see Exodus 19-24. See Appendix One. The reference to Isaiah also recalls the prophecy that the desert will be again a place of redemption. The full text from Isaiah is: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every
valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5). There is also an echo of Malachi 3:1-2 here in Mark, though Malachi does not mention the desert: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” The last words of Malachi are: “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” (4:5-6) We might reasonably conclude from this that there is a straight line being drawn by Mark from the great prophet, Elijah, to John. When King Herod hears of the activities of Jesus, a link is drawn via John the Baptist and Elijah: “King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him’. But others said, ‘It is Elijah’. And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old’. But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised’.” (Mark 6:14-16) “The passage from Malachi 3:1 (quoted in 1:2) seems to have been understood by many ancient Jews and Christians as predicting a prophetlike figure of the end time, and this figure was understood, in the context of Malachi 4:5–6, like Elijah, the OT prophet (see 1 Kings 17–21; 2 Kings 1–2).” (Hurtado, op cit, 16.)Jesus is tested in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13), he retreats there for prayer (Mark 1:35), goes there to avoid the crowds (Mark 1:45) and feeds the people the wilderness (Mark 6:31-32). The desert can mean either of two things for the Jewish people: Firstly, it has a positive connotation, meaning the place of God’s saving acts and the forging of the Covenant – for example Jeremiah 2:2-3: “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the Lord: I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown”; Hosea 2:14-15: “Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. From there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt”. Secondly, it can have a negative connotation, meaning the place of testing and rebellion – for example Exodus 16:2: “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness”; Numbers 11:4-6: “The rabble among them had a strong craving;
and the Israelites also wept again, and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at”.
9. What are we to make of the reference to “baptism” here? “The translation ‘baptism’ risks anachronistic interpretation as a fixed initiation rite. In Greek baptein and baptizein mean ‘dip’ or ‘immerse,’ and in the middle voice, ‘wash oneself’. Mark knows of Jewish ritual washings (7:4) and also uses ‘baptism’ metaphorically as being ‘drenched’ in suffering (10:38-39). Both the origin and meaning of John’s baptism are disputed. Two different proposals have emerged: (1.) Water rituals of purification known from the OT and Qumran (Leviticus 14:5-6, 50-52; Numbers 19:13, 20-21), which are symbols of interior purification (Isaiah 1:16; Psalm 51:7; 1QS 3:4-12; 4:20-22; 1QH 7:6-7; 17:26); and (2.) proselyte baptism, which was a ritual washing of initiation for converts to Judaism. Problems attend both as a background to John’s baptism. Ritual washings are self-administered and are repeated frequently, while John is the agent of a baptism that is not repeated, prepares for the eschaton, and implies moral conversion. Proselyte baptism is not clearly attested in the NT period, nor does John seek to form a community of baptized persons only around himself John Meier (A Marginal Jew 2:53-55) suggests that John’s practice of baptism should be regarded as original.” (Donahue and Harrington, op cit, 62.)
Waiting is an unavoidable experience. If the truth be told, we spend much of our lives waiting – and resenting it too often. There are the common, daily events of waiting for water to boil, the bus to come, lights to change, a phone to be answered and so on. At a deeper level there is a much more subtle and elusive experience of waiting, the kind of experience that can be transforming.
The Indian poet, Tagore, reminds us of this:
This is my delight, thus
To wait and watch at the
Wayside where shadows chase
Light and the rain comes
In the wake of summer.
Messengers, with tidings
From unknown skies greet
Me and speed along the
Road. My heart is glad
Within, and the breath
Of the passing breeze is
From dawn till dusk I sit
Here before my door, and
I know that of a sudden
The happy moment will
Arrive when I shall see.
In the meanwhile I smile
And sing all alone. In the
Meanwhile the air is filling
With the perfume of
In Advent, the liturgy calls us to be mindful of this deeper experience of waiting. Given the ongoing conversation that God is having with us, it is reasonable to expect that we will encounter God in our waiting.
Henry Longfellow suggests how this encounter in waiting can happen:
Let us then labour for an inward stillness,
An inward stillness and an inward healing-
That perfect silence where the lips and heart are still
And we no longer entertain our own imperfect thoughts and vain options
But God alone speaks in us
And we wait in singleness of heart
That we may know his will,
And in the silence of our spirits
That we may do his will and do that only.