2d Sunday of Advent
Dec. 7, 2014
Mark 1: 1-8
Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y.
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” (Mark 1: 1).
Mark’s Gospel is generally considered the oldest of the 4 gospels that have been accepted into the canon of NT writings—those 1st-century Christian writings recognized by the Church as divinely inspired for both revealing God to us and making him present in our lives.
|St. John the Baptist|
(St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome)
Among the 4 gospels Mark’s is unique in lacking any background material, or what people today call a “back story,” for his record of the saving deeds of Jesus Christ. Matthew and Luke both give us infancy narratives, the familiar stories about the birth and childhood of Jesus. John introduces his Gospel with a prolog on the eternal existence of the Son of God before “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). Mark, instead, starts us off with John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism. After 2 sentences on Jesus’ temptations in the desert, he rushes right on to Jesus’ public ministry of preaching and healing. In terms of Advent, JB announces the imminent coming of the “Mighty One” of God (cf. 1:7), the long-awaited Savior of Israel whom Mark’s about to present to us.
Mark starts his Gospel with an echo of God’s creation of the universe: “the beginning of the gospel of JC.” It’s an allusion to Genesis’s 1st words, “In the beginning,” suggesting that a new creation’s being inaugurated with the appearance of Jesus in our midst, suggesting that God’s about to restore creation to its original design, is about to renew humanity in our original innocence. How often do we long for a fresh start, a “new beginning”! Here it is: “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:8), that same Spirit that moved over the primeval waters of Gen 1:2 and stirred up creation. In JC, God recreates the world. In JC, God restores to the human race the innocence it lost when our 1st ancestors rejected God’s plan and went along with the devil’s lie.
Mark announces “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Gospel is an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “good news” or “glad tidings,” a literal translation of the Greek word euangelion, which in Latin becomes evangelium, which in turn gives us words like evangelist and evangelization. We heard the word in the reading from Isaiah, where Jerusalem was addressed as “herald of glad tidings, herald of good news!” and that news was God’s coming with power, with reward, with nourishment and protection for his people (40:9-11). In 1st-century secular Greek, euangelion could refer to the good news of peace brought by the Roman emperor. Those OT and contemporary ideas would have resonated with Mark’s readers. But in Mark’s hands gospel becomes a new literary genre, the announcement of the good news of our redemption, of peace restored between God and humanity thru JC. That’s the story he has to tell.
Assuredly, Mark isn’t the 1st to tell the story. The apostles have been telling it for 30 or more years, orally, since Pentecost Day. And Mark probably has some written sources, such as collections of Jesus’ sayings or his miracles, and almost certainly a passion story, to use in his 1st systematic account of the preaching, miracles, and passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus—all those historical events that constitute the Good News—good news that God loves us, takes us back as his children, and offers us a share in the risen life of Jesus.
The one who’s coming is “Jesus Christ the Son of God.” Mark gives Jesus of Nazareth 2 titles that the early Church, obviously, had already given him: Christ, or “anointed one,” the Greek translation of the Hebrew Messiah; and “Son of God.”
In the OT priests and kings were anointed, consecrated and set apart for God; and there’s at least one instance of a prophet’s being anointed. As God’s anointed one, Jesus offers a pure, pleasing sacrifice to God for the atonement of our sins, for intercession and favor, in praise of God’s goodness, in ratification of the new covenant that he has inaugurated between God and the human race. As God’s anointed one, he shepherds and protects God’s people, leads them in battle against their enemies—Satanic ones, not earthly ones—and guides them in God’s ways toward eternal life.
When Mark calls Jesus “the Son of God,” it’s not likely that he’s thinking as we do about the eternally existent 2d Person of the Holy Trinity. Such thoughts are starting to show in the Church’s theology by the time John writes his Gospel some 30 years after Mark, and they’ll continue to percolate for 200 years more before brewing into the Nicene Creed’s “God from God, Light from Light, true God from God, consubstantial with the Father” (you’ve heard that before?). Mark may be thinking more along traditional Jewish lines—lines even quoted by Jesus—about an anointed king being God’s adopted son who rules in God’s name; or about all who faithfully follow the Torah being God’s sons and daughters. Without intending to do so, Mark has given us another “beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ”: the beginning or the roots of our theology of who Jesus is. Our reflections upon Jesus’ words and actions and what the evangelists tell us about him leads gradually to a deepening of our understanding of him and of the life to which he calls us. In Advent and every season, we continue to meditate upon JC the Son of God and his meaning for our lives and our eternal destiny.
The earliest preaching of Jesus’ disciples began with John the Baptist, as we can see in the Acts of the Apostles. The criterion that Peter lays out for choosing a replacement of Judas the traitor is that the substitute should be “one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which he was taken up from us” (1:21-22). The apostles preach to various crowds of people about Jesus, starting with his baptism.
John was a well-known figure in 1st-century Judaism. The Jewish historian Josephus gives a brief sketch of his preaching, practice of baptism, and execution by Herod, and disciples of John remained in the Holy Land for many, many years. It’s evident that the evangelists don’t exaggerate much when they say “people of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him” (Mark 1:5).
So that’s where Mark starts. He makes it clear that John isn’t a prophetic free agent, tho. He’s a forerunner, and advance man, the “messenger sent ahead to prepare the way” (1:2) for the one whom God is sending. John calls people to repentance of their sins and gives them a way of demonstrating that repentance, viz., baptism, a symbolic washing, so they’ll be ready for God’s revelation. In Matthew and Luke, the Baptist also gives some specific directives about how his listeners should live after their symbolic cleansing.
John’s role, then, is to make people aware of their sinfulness and their need for a better way of living, i.e., the way of the Lord. In the 1st years after Jesus’ ascension, the Christian way of discipleship would be called simply “the Way” (e.g., Acts 9:2, 18:25-26). Evidently, this season of Advent is meant for us to prepare a way for the Lord Jesus in our own lives by acknowledging our sins (cf. 1:5).
We can’t be rebaptized for forgiveness (cf. 1:4), but we can renew our baptismal innocence thru the sacrament of Reconciliation, in which the mighty power of the Holy Spirit comes down on us and points us, again, toward heaven. Here’s that fresh start we long for! The sacrament encourages us to turn away from those sins we acknowledge and to practice virtue instead (practice the way of the Lord), and as St. Peter says today, to “conduct ourselves in holiness and devotion,” to be “without spot or blemish” as we “wait for the coming of the day of God” (2 Pet 3:11,14)—whether that day be Christmas Day or the day when we individually return to God or the Last Day, Judgment Day.
As we prayed in the Collect, thru our celebration of Christ’s sacraments and “our learning of heavenly wisdom,” may we “haste to meet [God’s] Son” and “gain admittance to his company” in the eternal kingdom of God.