John the Baptist Prepares the Way
Advent 2 Year B
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Mark 1: 1 — 8
This reading is part of the prologue to the Gospel according to St. Mark (1: 1 — 13) and is laid down for the second Sunday in Advent: a time of personal preparation to celebrate the coming of the Messiah. The previous Sunday’s Gospel opened Advent encouraging us to be ready for the final coming of the Lord and the close of time as we know it. Now we turn to the preparation of the People Israel for the commencement of the ministry of Jesus, our Beloved Messiah.
St. Mark’s Gospel, being based on the reminiscences of Peter, begins
with the public ministry of Jesus, or, rather, with His connection
with the Baptist, through which Peter and other apostles first became
acquainted with Him. It therefore omits the birth narratives, although
it is possible that St. Mark was acquainted with them. J. Dummelow (Ed)
Our text is very crisp, brief, even stark opening to a very matter-of-fact account. Our aim in this set of reflections is to offer sufficient supplementary information as a support for those who are willing to meditate on the sheer magnificence of St. Mark’s simple and very condensed statement of fact. It has a character all of its own and we must let it “speak for itself.”
Some Notes On the Text
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of God).
It is clear that at first the elementary preaching of the gospel by the
Apostles began with the baptism of Jesus by John, and that it was
only subsequently, and to the initiated alone, that the secret of our
Lord’s miraculous birth was disclosed. The reasons for this
prudential reserve during the Virgin’s lifetime are obvious.
J. Dummelow (Ed)
Most translations consider this verse as a heading or title, since it is not a complete sentence. The translation above has, “gospel of Jesus Christ, …” but it is not so much the gospel that comes from Jesus Christ, as an account about Him. The Jerome Commentary goes further and adds that it is more “a proclamation of the Risen Christ in which He is again made present.”
The word “gospel” (Greek, euaggeliou) meaning “good news” does not refer as W. Lane has remarked, to a written document but the living word of hope from the lips of an appointed messenger.
It can be helpful to recall the origin of the word “gospel” in English. It comes from Old English “godspell” meaning the God “spell”. The word “spell” meant a narrative, a story, not as we normally use the word, to name the letters of a word. Interestingly, we still use the word “spell” in the ancient way — on some occasions: e.g. “He had a good idea but he didn’t spell out how he thought it should be done.”
Perhaps we can simply note at this stage that spreading the Gospel is not to be primarily a declaration of moral principles or required beliefs, so much as telling about — well — the “God-story”: the story of God the Son and His life and work. The God story is about the long-awaited Messiah.
Lagrange defines “gospel” as, “the proclamation of salvation in Jesus …. The announcement of the salvation contained in the words and acts of Jesus.” Only later did the word come to mean a book.
By the time this account was written, the name Christ (Greek, Christos) the Anointed One, “Messiah,” had become more like a surname.
Verses 2 and 3
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I am sending my
messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the
Lord, make straight his paths.'”
This is not actually a quotation from Isaiah alone, but includes a sentence from Malachi as well, who, being the “lesser” prophet is not mentioned (a common custom at that time). Mark based his verses 2 and 3 on the following:
Exodus 23: 20
(chosen by St. Mark from the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament)
See, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared.
Malachi 3: 1
(chosen by St. Mark from the Hebrew version)
Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.
Isaiah 40: 3
(chosen by St. Mark from the Greek Septuagint version)
The voice of one crying in the desert: prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness the paths of our God.
As Lane informs us, “The blended citation functions to draw attention to three factors which are significant to the evangelist in the prologue: the herald, the Lord and the wilderness. Going back to Mark’s blended quotation, it should open with the word “Behold, I will send…etc.”
This is not just a call to look, but more correctly to listen carefully and reflect on the words. After the word “behold” the next is “I will send” (Greek, apostello), a very important term in the New Testament.
Some other words from the passage to note:
Messenger: a prophet, one who speaks the voice of God.
Desert: a wilderness rather than arid sand, and largely uninhabited.
Prepare: to get everything in place now and keep in readiness
Make straight: to do everything possible to remove obstacles and make His travel easy (unimpeded) and rapid.
Summing up. St. Mark sees the coming of John and Jesus to the wilderness as the fulfilment of the promised salvation of which the prophet Isaiah had spoken.
Verses 4 and 5
John (the) Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism
of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
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.
Again, before reflecting on these verses, we clarify the meaning and significance of some terms used.
John: in Hebrew Yehochanan, to which the first Christians added, the Baptiser.
Baptist or Baptiser: (ho baptizon: the baptiser), the one dipping, immersing. There is no clear proof John’s baptism derived from the Jewish practice of baptising new converts. It seems clear, however, that he adopted the Jewish custom of cleansing as a hallmark of his prophetic ministry.
Repentance: (metanoias): a deliberate and chosen turning around, involving heart, mind and will. It always means turning away from sin towards God; “a coming to one’s sense, resulting in a change of conduct.” (Moulton and Milligan).
See Appendix: Prayers of Repentance
Sins: in the Biblical concept, disobedience to God’s revealed will.
All the inhabitants: people of all classes (Weymouth)
Acknowledged: They openly admitted their sins.
P. J. Achtemier tells us that John the Baptist calls for a return to
faithfulness to God — the same faithfulness that had been typical of
Israel in the wilderness. Just as Israel would finally return to the
desert and to faithfulness to God in the last times, so John, in the
desert, calls all Israel to repent and be washed clean of their sins,
so they will be ready to greet the One who will come — clothed in
God’s own Spirit.
(Invitation To Mark by P. Achtemeir, Image Books, DLT 1978).
Thus, these few verses set in place a major underlying theme throughout the whole of Mark.
John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around
his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey.
John is a true man of the wilderness, an ascetic, in fact a Nazarite. His clothing was similar to that of Elijah: course, tough, and suited to the harsh environment. His simple uncluttered lifestyle matched the message he proclaimed. And we would say, he practised what he preached.
Verses 7 and 8
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.
I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the
John is saying, “While it is God’s will for me to baptise, I do so with water. But the One who will take over from me will baptise with and in the Holy Spirit.”
Again we point readers to the renowned work by Professor W. Lane:
The reference to the bestowal of the Spirit is appropriate to the
wilderness context of John’s proclamation. Isaiah describes Israel’s
trek in the wilderness as a march under the guidance of the Spirit of
God (Isa. 63: 11); it was the Spirit who gave the people rest in the
wilderness (Ch. 63: 14). As the first exodus had been a going forth
into the wilderness under the leadership of God’s Spirit, the prophet
announces the second exodus as a time when there will be a fresh
outpouring of the Spirit (Chs. 32: 15; 44: 3). With this concept in
mind John calls the people to the wilderness in anticipation of the
fulfilment of the prophetic promise.
(The Gospel According to Mark by W. Lane, published by
W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1974. Emphasis added.)
We will return to this theme often as we proceed through the rest of this Gospel account over the next twelve months, the Year of Mark.
A pause to reflect
There is something really strange, unusual, even vast and “cosmic” going on here — yet under the cover of a sole individual, in the middle of nowhere, standing on a rock, shouting out at people. What is going on?
It may take us a little time to appreciate that this is a very special moment in our religious history. There is nothing to match it before or since. Yet it is the opening scene in the whole drama of the Messiah and His Message as preached largely by St. Peter, and recorded by John Mark, his faithful scribe.
Let us take just three particular elements which have emerged in these few introductory verses.
“in the desert”
John the Baptiser, as he became known, was called by God, years beforehand, to leave the busy life of the city, and live in sheer simplicity, relying on whatever God would provide for his needs. He was a true “eremite”, Greek for desert-dweller (from which the term “hermit” later evolved). He remained celebate and gave his whole heart to the contemplation of God’s holiness and lovingkindness. The desert, although a “wilderness” was, in fact, a place of beautiful order, harmony, silence and spiritual uplifting. It was the place God chose to train John, or Yehochanan, as he was known, to hear His voice without interference from the noise and bustle of the world.
This very tradition has been maintained in the Church by individuals who are consecrated to devote themselves to God’s service in this way. But we are all called back to the desert in some way or another: the Christian spiritual life has consistently prepared its members to cast aside ceaseless activity and noise, at least for brief times of daily prayer and meditation. This element of our Hebrew Christian culture remains as important today as it was in our Lord’s time.
(See: Return to the Desert)
“I am sending my messenger”
We will be reflecting quite a lot more on the awesome ministry of St. John the Baptist, but for now we just take a snapshot of this great figure, a second cousin of Jesus, who will always, to some extent, remain a mystery to us. As did Moses, so John spoke the “mind of God”.
John was to be “my messenger”, as God put it. He was prepared for this sacred role, (as mentioned) not in the places and systems of learning of those times, but in solitude, silence and regular communing with God. Having said that, however, it is widely believed that he had periodic contact with the Jewish desert monastic community of the Essenes at Qumran. Thus he received profound and intense spiritual formation before he was called to teach the people. All of this occurred over a period of many years before he was to speak publicly about the coming of the Messiah.
For a little Advent reading on listening to God, see:
“Prepare the way of the Lord”
When John was finally called to share the fruits of his spiritual formation, he was thoroughly consecrated in the Lord, and well and truly robust for his unique role. He needed to be!
He was indeed, the announcer, drawing attention to the fulfilment of prophecy; but his message contained a similar element for those who would rally at the Lord’s summons.
And so: reflecting on these aspects of John’s mission —
• We too are called to nurture within us the habit of spending time
with God “in the desert” — learning to grow in silence, stillness and
simple life-style. In doing this we also learn to turn from all that is
displeasing to God and look to Jesus Christ, His Son — our
Redeemer, the Lamb of God.
(See Appendix — Prayers of Repentance.)
• We are not “John the Baptist,” but we too have a role to be a
servant — a messenger, taking the truths of our Faith out to places
where they can be heard and demonstrated.
• Our way of life, our spiritual formation, our perceptions of what
is happening in the world, are things we can share humbly, gently,
yet passionately and thus help prepare the way of the Lord: help
foster the entry of our Lord into the lives of people we meet.
How much the world needs cleansing! How much we all need cleansing! We have a marvellous gift for people who need to know the real solution to their real problems.
There is something very reassuring about this stark and piercing call from a man we may still find a strange enigma: the fact that we can go back and start again. It is a message about repentance, but it is also — powerfully — full of hope.
The call comes to us as individuals, as well as to the Church collectively. Advent reminds us that it is not only possible to go back to our original relationship with God, but that we must respond to this call conveyed by His holy messenger. It is then we can recover the vision and sense of purpose we sometimes feel intensely aware we have lost. Plenty around us beat the drums and shout victory for the Lord, but have no intention of first repenting of personal sin and listening to Him in the desert place; the place into which He calls us, where we leave the noise and affairs of the world, to be able to hear the “still small voice”. ( 1 Kings 19: 11 — 14 ). In our year ahead, we will be constantly developing this practice, as well as “the need to heed”, the need to put it into practice.
Now is the time to listen!
In short, we will highlight throughout the year, the call of St. John the Baptist to turn from our sin, in all its forms, towards Jesus: Lamb of God, our Blessed Messiah.
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(Mark 16: 15)
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Let us remember God’s teaching, contained in His Word and in doing
John The Baptist Prepares The Way
Advent 2 Year B St. Mark 1: 1 — 8
1. St. John the Baptist proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of
See our article, “Mikvah and Baptism”
This is a beautiful custom and, via John the Baptist, it has passed over
Whatever our Christian heritage and customs, we should express repentance
2. John was called out of the busyness of the towns, to live in silence and
3. The whole focus of John the Baptist’s life and work was towards the coming
As John demonstrated, everything in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old
Meanwhile He has left us to continue the work of John the Baptist, as the
“Prepare the Way of the Lord, make straight His paths.”
Christians of the Middle Ages had very great esteem for St. John the Baptist.
Sadly, much of this has “taken a back seat”. We would gain a lot from following
Our living of Jesus Christ’s teaching, to the best of our abilities, as members of His
Let us pray for one another to have the courage to confess our sin daily to God and to offer prayers of repentance.
Mark 1: 1 — 8
Advent 2 Year B
1 1 2 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of God).
2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: 3 “Behold, I am sending my
3 A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the
4 John (the) Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism
5 People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants
6 John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his
7 And this is what he proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming
8 5 I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the
1 [1-13] The prologue of the Gospel according to Mark begins with the title (⇒ Mark 1:1) followed by three events preparatory to Jesus’ preaching: (1) the appearance in the Judean wilderness of John, baptizer, preacher of repentance, and precursor of Jesus (⇒ Mark 1:2-8); (2) the baptism of Jesus, at which a voice from heaven acknowledges Jesus to be God’s Son, and the holy Spirit descends on him (⇒ Mark 1:9-11); (3) the temptation of Jesus by Satan (⇒ Mark 1:12-13).
2  The gospel of Jesus Christ [the Son of God]: the “good news” of salvation in and through Jesus, crucified and risen, acknowledged by the Christian community as Messiah (⇒ Mark 8:29; ⇒ 14:61-62) and Son of God (⇒ Mark 1:11; ⇒ 9:7; ⇒ 15:39), although some important manuscripts here omit the Son of God.
3 [2-3] Although Mark attributes the prophecy to Isaiah, the text is a combination of ⇒ Malachi 3:1; ⇒ Isaiah 40:3; ⇒ Exodus 23:20; cf ⇒ Matthew 11:10; ⇒ Luke 7:27. John’s ministry is seen as God’s prelude to the saving mission of his Son. The way of the Lord: this prophecy of Deutero-Isaiah concerning the end of the Babylonian exile is here applied to the coming of Jesus; John the Baptist is to prepare the way for him.
4  Clothed in camel’s hair . . . waist: the Baptist’s garb recalls that of Elijah in ⇒ 2 Kings 1:8. Jesus speaks of the Baptist as Elijah who has already come (⇒ Mark 9:11-13; ⇒ Matthew 17:10-12; cf ⇒ Malachi 3:23-24; ⇒ Luke 1:17).
5 [8-9] Through the life-giving baptism with the holy Spirit (⇒ Mark 1:8), Jesus will create a new people of God. But first he identifies himself with the people of Israel in submitting to John’s baptism of repentance and in bearing on their behalf the burden of God’s decisive judgment (⇒ Mark 1:9; cf ⇒ Mark 1:4). As in the desert of Sinai, so here in the wilderness of Judea, Israel’s sonship with God is to be renewed.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised
Appendix: Prayers of Repentance