by Br Julian McDonald cfc
People of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him (John the Baptist), and, as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan, they confessed their sins. Mark 1: 1-8
All writing reflects something of the personality, world-view and/or mindset of its authors. For example, what Isaiah wrote in today’s first reading very clearly indicates that he believed in a God who played an active role in world events. If the people for whom he wrote flourished and prospered, that was clear evidence that God was looking favourably on them. Invasion by foreign powers was clear evidence that God was meting out to them the punishment they deserved. However, Isaiah’s theology was not totally bleak. He held out to his people the hope of a merciful God whose anger would eventually abate. When that happened God would lead them home from exile and restore them to peace and prosperity. That explains why he can present God saying: “Console my people, console them. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her that her time of service is ended, that her sin is atoned for;” (Isaiah 40: 1-2) That’s not the theology of most of us. The wars, bloodshed and cruelty currently being inflicted on people across the world are the inventions of twisted human beings. They are not punishments from God. Human beings can be instruments of evil as well as agents for good. A consequence of the Incarnation is that Jesus is present in and among us. Consequently, we can act as instruments of God, sisters and brothers of Jesus in contributing to the betterment of our world and its people.
I suggest that our attention be focussed on the voice that Isaiah hears calling: “Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low, let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley;” (Isaiah 40: 3-4)
Here, Isaiah has moved into the language of metaphor, using it to present for his audience a vision for their world free of divisions and obstacles represented by “valleys and mountains”. It is not coincidental that, in today’s gospel-reading, Mark borrowed as his catch-cry what Isaiah had proclaimed centuries before: “Prepare a way for the lord, make his paths straight and smooth!” Mark then proceeded to relate that John the Baptist set about “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ He went on to add that “All Judea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan, they confessed their sins. (Mark 1: 4-6)
In imagining the scene of crowds flocking to John for baptism in the waters of the Jordan, I suggest that John, blessed with a magnetic personality, drew crowds, in much the same way as modern-day evangelists fill stadiums. Moreover, what Mark refers to as “repentance and confession of sins” are somewhat different from what we might envision. The Greek word in Mark that is translated for us as “repentance” is metanoia made up of the roots meta (beyond) and nous (the mind). So, “confession of sins’ did not refer to itemising one’s failures and sins as we are/were accustomed to doing in the rite of sacramental reconciliation. In their collective fervour, those who were baptised by John were testifying to their determination to leave behind being satisfied with living lives of mediocrity and, instead, adopting a change of mind, heart and vision intended to transform the ways in which they lived and related to one another. These people, inspired by John, were pledging, in the hearing of one another, to set their sights on living with one another free of disputes, competition and settling scores. Moreover, the one to whom John pointed, who “will baptise you with the Holy Spirit”, would turn out to be the Christ of God, love personified.
It is significant that the opening sentence of today’s gospel-reading is: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ.” This parallels and echoes the opening sentence of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Mark did this to signal to his community that the story he was launching would be as startling and far-reaching as God’s action of creating the world.
What Isaiah dreamed of in the first reading was translated into action centuries later by John the Baptist. The change of mind and heart that John called for was taken up by those who turned up to be baptised by him, and that paved the way for the coming of Emmanuel, ‘God with us” whose birth we will celebrate at Christmas. Mark was emphasising that what had been proclaimed by Isaiah and a long line of prophets was at long last fulfilled in John and Jesus. Mark was describing how events like these were a demonstration of how God worked and will continue to work in expressing love for humanity.
Today’s second reading from Peter is simply a reminder to his community and to us that God’s chronology is not in sync with Greenwich Mean Time. However, today’s three readings taken together offer us the assurance that, at some time in the future, the glory of God will come to reality in and among us. All we need to do is open our minds and hearts wide enough to be transformed. That’s the only requirement for preparing the way of the Lord. In succession, these readings first remind us of god’s patience and tolerance in our regard, then challenge us to live each day true to the way in which Jesus taught us and, finally, encourage us to assess if, in our day-to-day lives we have settled for mediocrity. All three add up to a checklist for measuring our capacity for opening ourselves to the change of mind and heart to which God constantly invites us. I suggest that the biggest obstacle to that kind of change is fear. And that leads me to one final point.
The earliest manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel conclude with chapter 16, verse 8. Verses 9-20, according to Scripture scholars, are a later addition. Mark’s conclusion, then, was about the reaction of the women who discovered the empty tomb of Jesus after his resurrection: “And the women came out and ran away from the tomb because they were frightened out of their wits, and they said nothing to a soul, for they were afraid…” The implication of this unfinished sentence is surely that the “beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” deserves to be continued. Is it not our responsibility as disciples of Jesus to ensure that the story is continued through the way we live? Fear would get in the way and end up paralysing us, too.