Sunday reflection: Mark 1:1-8

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 1:1–8:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God. 

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”

John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. And this is what he proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Today’s reading takes us back to the beginning of the Gospel narrative of Mark. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke begin with the Annunciation or the birth and ancestry of Jesus Himself. The Gospel of John begins with an explanation that God sent John and his mission to herald the Messiah, but Mark starts his Gospel simply with the appearance of John the Baptist in the desert and his ministry. Narratively, it’s a curious choice, as readers of this Gospel alone might find it jarring to start the story of salvation with the final prophet in the middle of his ministry rather than at the beginning of the narrative’s arc, as in Luke and Matthew, or even without a cursory explanation as in John.

Why is that? John the Baptist likely needed no explanation for Mark’s readers. Many of them may already have heard Matthew’s Gospel, for one thing, but from all the Gospels it becomes very clear that John was a powerful force in Israel before Jesus began His ministry. Consider what this passage tells us: John lives out in the desert by the Jordan, a fair distance from Jerusalem now and certainly a significant amount of travel in those days. He lives on locusts and “wild honey” (dates), dresses in poverty, and proclaims that he himself is of no real importance.

And yet, as all of the Gospels note, people came from Jerusalem and all of the countryside to hear John preach. Even the local king, Herod Antipas, found John fascinating and threatening, later having him arrested and killed because of John’s condemnation of the king’s sins (and as a consequence of them). Even this voice so far out in the wilderness appears to have been recognized as prophetic, by a people thirsting for word from the Lord about their subjugation. They came from far and wide to be baptized in repentance in the hope that their sins would be forgiven, traveling for a day or more through some of the most rugged desert in the world to do so.

What does that tell us about the people of Israel at that time? What does that say about us?

It had been centuries at that point since Israel had a true prophet. The people of God had been trampled and subjugated in between, at this point by the Romans. Israel had turned away from God repeatedly, as the Old Testament records again and again, and had paid a heavy price for doing so. Rather than being a light for the nations, Israel had fallen into sin and idolatry rather than rely on the Lord. That was the true calling of Israel — to be a nation of priests and prophets to lead all to salvation and reconciliation with the Lord. Israel was to be the nation that prepared the way, as Isaiah prophesied in today’s first reading, by triumphing over idolatry rather than indulging it for petty political gain. “Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news!”

Now John comes to fulfill on his own what the whole nation of Israel failed to do: make straight a highway for God. He is not the salvation, but he is the one who prepares Israel to receive it, in the way Israel was supposed to prepare the world. John seeks no glory for himself; he lives in the wilderness and ekes out a subsistence existence, giving his all to the Lord and to Jesus, whom he knows will eclipse him. The power of this message, and the realization that God has not forsaken Israel after all, draw people to John — and even more so, draw them into recognition of their sins, both individual and communal. Jerusalem is 50 kilometers from the Jordan, and the difference in elevation alone is a mile, and yet enough people pour out of the city to wash themselves of their sins that it frightens the most powerful non-Roman into arresting and executing John in an effort to put an end to it.

These people heard the prophetic word that God would provide salvation if people repented of their sins and walked or rode for miles through the desert to receive it. They did so with joy in their hearts, realizing that their Lord still loved them, and that something wonderful was about to happen. In the end, none of them understood what that meant and most failed to recognize it when Jesus arrived, but they were so thirsty for God’s love and salvation that they felt compelled to follow John in preparation anyway.

We are not so different today, although for different reasons. We abandon God because His ways are inconvenient rather than outside oppression. We try to reason away sin, much like Herod Antipas, and end up losing any sense of it. We would rather focus on the material and our own gain rather than fulfill the mission of the Holy Spirit, not for survival but for comfort. And yet most of us still have a nagging sense that we’re off the path, and that our own sinfulness separates us from God. People joke about lightning strikes if they come back to church, but it’s usually clear that the joke has a serious undertone when it’s made. All of us can feel at times like we’ve lost contact with God, not because He’s angry with us as much as we’ve pushed Him aside, and that our situation is therefore entirely hopeless.

John the Baptist’s message applies just as much today as it did in the original Advent. God’s love for His people is never-ending, and He sent Jesus Christ as a testament to it. All we need to do is prepare ourselves for His coming — in our case, the Second Coming. John’s ministry was a call to preparation and formation, to seek repentance through baptism and forgiveness of sins to make ourselves ready for Christ. We can find that highway at all times, but Advent in particular calls us to a special season of preparation, and of joy as well.

Something wonderful is coming, and unlike the Israelites in John’s day, we already know that it is the salvation of Jesus Christ. They journeyed for miles and miles to find repentance and salvation through the baptism of John, and spread the good news of those days to their friends and family. That is what we should remember this Advent, and prepare ourselves with no less enthusiasm and joy for Jesus and the salvation which He brings.

The front-page image is the altar at the Church of St. John the Baptist in Ein Karem, Israel, at the traditional site of John’s birth (from my own archives).