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A Voice Cries in the Wilderness

Published on 04 Dec 2017

A reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent Year B 

Dries van den Akker SJ

Mark 1: 1–08

1. Christ the Messiah

On the second Sunday of Advent we are invited to look at and to listen to Saint John the Baptist. He announces to us the coming of Jesus. So Saint Mark tell us. In the very first verse of his Gospel Saint Mark promises that he will say two things about Jesus: First, that Jesus is Christ (without the definite article). That is the Greek word for Messiah. In the English language: ‘The Anointed One’. And secondly: that Jesus is Son of God (also without the definite  article). By the way, with these two qualities of Jesus Saint Mark indicates the two main themes of his gospel story. Halfway through his Gospel (8:29), Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is. Saint Peter says, ‘You’re the Messiah.’ That was the first quality of Jesus, announced in the first verse of his Gospel. At the end Jesus is crucified and dies. A Roman officer stands under the cross and says: ‘Truly this man was son of God’ (15:39). That was the second quality of Jesus, announced in the first verse. The two qualities of Jesus in the first verse indicate the composition of Saint Mark’s Gospel.

As we know, there was (and is!) a belief in the Jewish culture that the coming of the Messiah will be preceded by Elijah. What were (and are) the Jews hoping for when they longed for the Messiah? They read that in the Old Testament book of Isaiah.  He tells about a man he says of himself (61:1),

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to soothe the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor; to comfort all who mourn...

The man presents himself as the one who is anointed. The Christ. The Messiah. Shortly, the Messiah will be the son of God. He will change this world into a paradise. Pondering these words we can ask ourselves what we are longing for, when we look forward to the coming of Jesus in our world, in our lives, in our lives. So, if Mark wants to be believed in saying that Jesus is the Messiah, then he has to make clear that Elijah preceded him. He does so by presenting John the Baptist as a new Elijah.

Mural of Jesus being baptised with a dove descending on him 

The painter of this fresco clearly shows that Jesus is anointed by the spirit from heaven. John the Baptist (left: water jug in his left hand) just baptized Jesus. From heaven descends the spirit (dove with cross nimbus!)... and pours the heavenly anointment from a jug. 

2. John the Baptist

On the second  Sunday of Advent Saint John the Baptist invites us to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. As we know, there is a belief in Jewish culture that the coming of the Messiah will be preceded by Elijah. In his first verse Mark announces to us that he will tell us about Jesus the Messiah (‘Christ’ is the Greek translation). If Mark wants to have credibility then he has to make clear that Elijah preceded Jesus. He does so by presenting John the Baptist as a new Elijah. We can recognise him by his clothes. ‘He wore a garment of camel’s skin …’ That is exactly the way Elijah was clothed. More, these were the clothes by which Elijah was recognised. In the Second Book of Kings (2 Kings 1:6) we read that two messengers came to the king. They told his majesty that, on their way, they met somebody who had a message for the king. "What sort of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?" They answered him, "A man wearing a hair cloak with a leather loincloth." He said, "It is Elijah the Tishbite." 

Later in the Gospel (9:13) Jesus will affirm that John the Baptist was Elijah, ‘But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they have treated him as they pleased, just as the scriptures say about him’.

Statue of St John the Baptist from 18th Century France

The sculptor illustrates that Saint John’s coat was made of camel hair: the head of the camel is always connected with the coat, as we see between John the Bapist’s feet. 

 

3. Citations

So, John the Baptist is the forerunner. Mark uses a citation from the Old Testament to illustrate that. He says that it is a citation from the prophet Isaiah. That may be true for verse 3, but not for verse 2. That part of the citation comes from the prophet Malachi (3:1), ‘See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me...’ After that Mark does switch to a citation from Isaiah (40:3), ‘A voice cries, ‘Prepare in the desert a way of Yahweh.”’ Now we see that Mark slightly changed the text of Isaiah. Isaiah says: ‘A voice cries “Prepare in the desert…” Saint Mark brings the voice into the desert itself: ‘A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord.’ He needs that to emphasise that John the Baptist was indeed preaching in the desert.

No, he was not preaching. He was ‘crying out...’ Isaiah uses a special word here. Not the Greek word that could be translated into ‘calling’, or the word that could be translated into ‘shouting’. No, he chooses a word that is used for the sound of ‘cattle’. So, it should be translated into ‘lowing’ or ‘bellowing’. That sounds dramatic. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament ‘this’ word is used several times. But Mark gives the word its dramatic content. For he uses it only twice in his gospel: at this moment, and... when Jesus is (bel)lowing on the cross (15:34), ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Not only does this lend a surprising framing to Mark’s gospel, it also makes clear what we are preparing for when we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. His coming reaches beyond Christmas to his cross (and resurrection).

Modern (1930s) statue of a prophet from Antwerp‘Prophet’, 1933, Pablo Gargallo; Belgium, Antwerp, Middelheim Parc

4. Repentance

John the Baptist ‘is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ And indeed all the people who came to him confessed their sins, as we read in Mark 1:6. In the Catholic Church it is a good habit to offer a celebration of repentance during Advent, and to provide an opportunity to confess.

But there is more. John the Baptist makes that ‘more’ clear by saying that he is baptizing with water, but the one who is coming after him will baptize with Holy Spirit (without the definite article). He will - so to speak- wash the spirits of those who confess. He will give them a new spirit.

Mark chooses his words carefully. In my opinion, he announces that new spirit already in verse 4, where he says that John was proclaiming a baptism of repentance. Where the translation gives ‘repentance’, Mark uses the Greek word ‘meta-noia’. It is very well possible to translate that word into ‘repentance’. But ‘meta-noia’ is more than that. It means ‘changing of mind’. ‘Meta-‘ is ‘changing’, as we see, for example, in ‘meta-morphism’: changing of form. From the word ‘-noia’ comes, for example, the English word ‘notion’: ‘thinking’. So ‘meta-noia’ has the meaning of ‘change your mind’, ‘think differently’. John the Baptist invites us to confess our sins and to be ready/prepared to be converted. He who is coming after him will give us a new spirit, which will makes us change our minds.

Changing our minds

What that means, specifically, Marks doesn’t tell at this moment. It is sort of cliffhanger. So he makes us curious about the person of Jesus. What will be his other way of thinking? But we probably know enough of the gospel to realize that Jesus reproached his religious countrymen for being so eager to keep the Law that they had forgotten about mercy, charity and forgiveness. Metanoia ‘change your minds, and God’s kingship will be very near’ so he himself announces some time later (1:14-15). Don’t judge, but forgive and love your neighbour as you are forgiven and loved by the Lord God himself.

Stained glass depicting St John the Baptist baptising

Saint John (left, in blue garment) is baptizing. The nudity of those who are baptized, symbolizes that - with their clothes - they take off their bad habits. After the bath into the water, they are ready to receive new, clean clothes, symbol of the new spirit that will be brought by the one who is coming after John. As we see (right), he is already on his way ...

5. Good Message

In the first verse Mark announces that he is going to tell the ‘good news’ (eu-angelion: ‘good message’). This opening word has become so characteristic that the four stories about Jesus are called ‘good news’. Again, Mark found this word in the prophecies of Isaiah. He is the preeminent prophet of the ‘good news’. Mark uses the word as a noun; Isaiah uses always the verb ‘to bring the good message/news’. There are at least three different locations where Isaiah speaks about ‘bringing (the) good news).

In Isaiah 40:9-10, ‘Go up on a high mountain, messenger of Zion, [here the Greek text says, ‘bring the good news’]; shout as loud as you can, messenger of Jerusalem, (again ‘bring the good news’, shout fearlessly, say to the towns of Judah, "Here is your God!"  

Here is the Lord Yahweh coming with power, his arm maintains his authority, his reward is with him and his prize precedes him.’

Here the phrase ‘bringing the good message/news’ appears even twice in the same verse. What is the content of the ‘good message’? That the Lord will come, yeah: will be there, with power; as a ruler, a king. That will change the world.

The second time (Isaiah 52:7): ‘How beautiful on mountains are the feet of the messenger (‘the one who is bringing the good news’) announcing peace, of the messenger of good news, (‘who is bringing good news of good things’), who proclaims salvation, and says to Zion, "Your God is king."’

Again we hear the phrase ‘bringing the good news’ twice. What is the content of the good news here? That God reigns in Jerusalem, as a king.

The third time Isaiah is using the word ‘good news’ in the same breath (61:1): ‘The spirit of Lord Yahweh is on me for Yahweh has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the news to the afflicted, to soothe the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives…’

Now, the Good News is that the kingship of God will be founded in Jerusalem by his anointed one. This anointed one is to be recognized by his helping and redeeming suffering people. That is exactly what Jesus will do, in contrast with his contemporaries.

So, in the first large part of his Gospel, Mark will present Jesus as the one who is healing and redeeming; who is doing the works the Messiah was meant to do. The moment he is recognised as such (by Saint Peter in 8:29!), he is on his way to Jerusalem to found the kingship of God there. That is the second big part of Mark’s Gospel. It reaches its summit not at the moment that Jesus is received in Jerusalem as a king by his disciples (11:1-11); but when Jesus is crucified and the most powerful man of that time, Pontius Pilate, the representative of the Roman Empire, notes above Jesus’ head: ‘King of the Jews’ (15:26). Who would ever have thought that the prophesies of Isaiah had to be interpreted this way!?

He died because he loved and took care of the ones others didn’t love. God’s Kingship is a kingship of mercy, forgiveness and love.

That is what we are looking for. I wish you a blessed Christmas when it comes.

Image of the Holy Family at Christmas surrounded by all nations

 All nations seeking to be loved by Jesus.

 

 

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