A voice cries out: context

jbaptistmafaMark 1:1-8   1The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of God). 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. 3 A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” 4 John (the) Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 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. 6 John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. 7 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. 8 I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Context. Mark 1:1-13 is generally considered the “prologue” for this oldest of the gospels. The reason for this designation is that these verses supply the key to the entire Gospel by introducing the central figure of the account. In accordance with the prophetic word, Jesus appears in the wilderness of Judea, summoned by the call of John the Baptist. His baptism and sojourn there constitute his first public acts and provide the foundation for his subsequent ministry. The Gospel of Mark will be the account of Jesus’ trial, throughout which he decisively encounters Satan and receives help from God. This is what it means for Jesus to go out to the wilderness.

The motif of the wilderness dominates the prologue. The prophetic note of the voice of one crying in the wilderness (v.3) serves to introduce John the Baptist, whose ministry in the Jordan valley attracts Jesus of Nazareth (vv.4–8). The situating of John “in the wilderness” (v.4) binds the account of his ministry to the prophetic announcement of vv. 2–3. Mark relates the baptisms in the Jordan to the wilderness, for the lower Jordan valley is part of the wilderness scene and was called “desert” in both the Old and New Testament periods. Subsequent to the baptism of Jesus the wilderness remains prominent as the arena where he was tempted (vv.12–13). Thus in vv. 1–13 the wilderness is the location common to the several events related, and serves to underline the unity of the initial section. In v. 14 the locality changes: Jesus leaves the wilderness and returns to Galilee to begin his ministry following the imprisonment of John.

In the prologue, the primary unifying term is “wilderness.” But there is also repeated reference to the person of the Spirit within this section (vv. 8, 10, 12). The allusion to the one who baptizes with the Spirit in the summary of John’s message (v. 8) prepares for the reference to the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism, and binds vv. 4–8 to vv. 9–11, while the role of the Spirit in the temptation (vv. 12–13) associates this unit with the previous ones. The fact that the Spirit is introduced into the record only rarely beyond the prologue suggests that Mark has consciously unified his opening statement by a threefold reference to the Spirit.

The most striking characteristics of the Marcan prologue are its abruptness and its silences. This is surprising because the one introduced is not an ordinary person but the Son of God, acknowledged by the heavenly voice, who in the initial phases of his public ministry provokes wonder and astonishment by the authority of his teaching and the power of his mighty acts. The evangelist makes no attempt to provide an historical explanation for John’s presence in the wilderness or for Jesus’ appearance before John. The prophetic voice and the Son of God appear, veiled in mystery from the very beginning. Yet their appearance in the wilderness is full of meaning for all precisely because the veil has been removed and the significance which it has in the divine plan of redemption has been disclosed. This Mark declares in the opening verse of his account. Accordingly, with a few broad strokes the prologue associates Jesus with the preaching and baptizing activity of John, and with trial in the wilderness. It indicates that the Messiah, who is divinely chosen and qualified for his ministry, has come. The accent falls upon the disclosure that Jesus is the Messiah, the very Son of God, whose mission is to affirm his sonship in the wilderness. His encounter with Satan provides the background for the delineation of the conflict between the Son of God and the forces of Satan which is so prominent an element in the Marcan narrative of Jesus’ ministry.

This Reading at the Start of Advent. As noted in last week’s commentary, the season of Advent has its own goals, purpose, and sense. That does not include jumping right into the infancy narratives. While one might argue that is where the story of Jesus begins in “time,” it is not a complete idea to describe what is unfolding in “time” but has been planned since the foundation of the world. The danger of beginning with the infancy narratives is that the real story of salvation can get lost in the all-too-familiar Christmas scenes. Those scenes will be celebrated in their own time and place – the Christmas season. But this is Advent.

On the First Sunday of Advent each year, we hear some of Jesus’ teachings about the “End Times.” In each case, the text is taken from a passage that comes from the end of Gospels when Jesus seems to be speaking about apocalyptic events. The Second and Third Sundays of Advent focus on the preaching of John the Baptist. The emphasis is on the role of John as Herald. Finally, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent the Gospel reading relates to some of the events that immediately preceded Jesus’ birth, including Joseph’s dreams (Year A: Matt 1:18-24), the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel (Year B: Luke 1:26-38), and the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Year C: Luke 1:39-45).

The Gospel readings of the four Sundays of Advent come to us in reverse chronology. We start with the end of time. We continue to the period when Jesus was an adult. We end in the days before his birth. Like a funnel, Advent opens with a giant theme, the grandness of Christ the King, and it ends with a specific one, the child lying in a Bethlehem manger. And so we begin not with the “life” of Jesus as a chronology, but The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.

Here at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel we discover, not the manger scene, but the meaning of a gospel as proclamation, and the importance of the titles “Christ” and “Son of God.” Mark reminds us that gospel originally meant “good news.” Christianity did not begin with a new book. Its Scripture was that of the Jewish people. Christianity began with a “new message” about what the God known through that Scripture had done in Jesus Christ. The good news itself is a simple message of salvation in Jesus.

At the beginning of a new Liturgical Year, it is good to be reminded that Advent is a season of preparation and trust that the good news, the gospel, has begun in the promises of God, taken form and shape in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and will come to fruition in the second coming of our Lord and Savior.

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