Mark 1: 1-8
1 THE beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;
2 As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
4 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
5 And there went out unto him all the land of Judæa, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
6 And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;
7 And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.
8 I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.
Mark’s Gospel, thought by many to be the earliest written, does not present an account of the birth of Christ. He begins with the proclamation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, leading into his baptism by John. Toward the end of the Gospel, when the crucified Christ dies, the centurion standing by him will affirm this, saying: ‘Truly this was the Son of God.’ Throughout this most fast paced of gospels, this is Mark’s message, to give his readers the knowledge that Christ is the Son of God.
One of Mark’s intentions in doing this is to teach his contemporaries that John himself was not the Messiah. John performs a role quite distinct from Jesus’. John himself tells his many followers: ‘There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.’ John points the way toward Jesus. He is the last of the prophets, living now in urgent expectation of the coming of the Messiah, and preparing his followers for him.
It was normal for the Jewish people of Christ’s time to look to their history and their sacred texts in order to seek to reach an understanding of the present time. So it is that John here is identified with Elijah and with the prophecies of Isaiah and Malachi. John is ‘clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins’ [‘… with a leather belt around his waist’ NRSV]. This recalls the description of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8: ‘He was an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins.’ John fulfils the role of Elijah in predicting the coming of our Lord. We recall the words of Malachi:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:
And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers. (Malachi 4: 5-6)
Mark interprets this to mean not, or not only, that Elijah, now present as John, is to herald the day of judgement, but rather the arrival of Jesus to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. And once more, John is presented to Mark’s contemporaries as a prophet and not himself the Messiah.
The third of our Old Testament references here is to Isaiah:
1 COMFORT ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3 The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:
5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. (Isaiah 40: 1-5)
John baptises in the wilderness. He occupies a marginal space – outside of Jerusalem, away from the Temple– and yet clearly he is no marginal figure: he has a mass following; all the land of Judæa and the people of Jerusalem flock to him – this is a time of great hope, of great expectation. And how very beautiful that they do so to be baptised, to confess and repent their sins and to be forgiven their sins. There is here a great prefiguring of our Christianity.
Jesus sees that John’s baptism comes from God. That is why he goes to be baptised of him. It is so characteristic of our Lord that he should humble himself in this way. Yet Jesus comes with and brings an additional blessing, that of the Holy Spirit and too of a closer and more intimate relationship with God. The gift of the Holy Spirit follows upon repentance and baptism. We recall the work of the apostles as recorded in Acts, whereby people are said to have been baptised but have yet to be given the Holy Spirit, which the apostles bring to them. It is when Jesus is baptised that he sees the heavens open and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him. It is time to begin his ministry. John has truly paved the way and the time of our Lord is at hand. He is acknowledged by a voice from heaven, by God the Father as God the Son. Through this moment, the possibility of our new relationship with God has been revealed.
As we continue our journey through Advent, it is truly fitting that we recall the work of John in the wilderness, to whom even our Lord came for baptism. It is truly remarkable that one without sin should so express his humanity, which he adopted for our sakes, in this way. How much more, then, can we profit by acknowledging our sins and seeking reconciliation as we joyfully await the coming of the Lord. In many ways this is a time of considerable hardship. We like the Jewish people face great challenges in our lives. But while we walk through darkness, we carry this great light with us, Jesus Christ.
‘Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me as I seek, because I can neither seek you if you do not teach me how, nor find you unless you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in desiring you; let me desire you in seeking you; let me find you in loving you; let me love you in finding you.’ St Anselm
Almighty and merciful God,
let neither our daily work nor the cares of this life
prevent us from hastening to meet your Son.
Enlighten us with your wisdom
and lead us into his company.
We make our prayer through our Lord.