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John the Baptist Prepares the Way

Advent 2     Year B

A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
www.hebrewcatholic.org.nz

Click here for a printable copy of this paper

St. Mark 1: 1 — 8

 

Introduction

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.”

Click here for a printable copy of our text

 

Some Notes On the Text

Verse 1

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.

Verse 6

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

So what?

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
holy Spirit.”

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:

No Spiritual Hearing Without Listening

“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 AppendixPrayers 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.

 

Conclusion

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.

Shalom!

 

Further Reading

For those who would like a detailed study resource
on the readings for Sunday, please visit:

Agape Bible Study — 2nd Sunday in Advent

If you require only the section on the Gospel reading,
just scroll down the page.

To view all the material on the Agape website please visit:

www.agapebiblestudy.com

This website is highly recommended:

 

 Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature

(Mark 16: 15)

The real Jesus, is the real answer to the real needs of the world!

Let us remember God’s teaching, contained in His Word and in doing
so, remain close to Him. The following are only examples illustrating
how you can note the gems the Holy Spirit highlights for your on-going
reflection.

     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
sins”. He was well trained in the Jewish tradition of regular bathing for ritual
cleanliness.

      See our article, “Mikvah and Baptism”

      This is a beautiful custom and, via John the Baptist, it has passed over
into Christianity — first in the act of baptism — and then into the ancient custom of
blessing oneself and one’s household with water over which special prayers have
been said. Remember that in baptism we are buried with Christ and rise up
cleansed from sin through Him, to live entirely for Him! This recalls and
re-animates our baptism and cleansing in Jesus the Anointed One (the Christ).

      Whatever our Christian heritage and customs, we should express repentance
for our sins regularly and renew our undertaking to listen carefully to God’s
Messengers and His message. See Prayers of Repentance for a few suggestions
which you may like to add to your personal prayers.

2.   John was called out of the busyness of the towns, to live in silence and
(largely), in solitude. That is where he was given the spiritual preparation for the
unique task ahead of him. The wilderness has a special meaning in Hebrew and
Christian spirituality. It is good for us all to retreat sometimes to such a place,
and there, commune with God, heart to heart. That is where we learn to be still
within, and to listen.

      See our articles:
           Return to the Desert” and No Spiritual Hearing Without Listening”.

3.   The whole focus of John the Baptist’s life and work was towards the coming
of the Messiah whom he finally recognised to be his cousin, Yeshua, as he called
Jesus.

      As John demonstrated, everything in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old
Testament) prefigured in some way the coming of the Messiah, and the work He
would perform. Everything added to the momentum of the Messiah’s advent.
As we will discover during the reading of St. Mark’s Gospel, much was only partially
fulfilled, pointing to the Second Coming of the Messiah — His Great Return at the
end of time — to complete His work.

      Meanwhile He has left us to continue the work of John the Baptist, as the
Prophet Isaiah proclaimed:

“Prepare the Way of the Lord, make straight His paths.”

      Christians of the Middle Ages had very great esteem for St. John the Baptist.
They placed a very strong emphasis on his preaching and ministry which bore fruit
in their extensive searching the Scriptures and meditation on all that prefigured
the work of the Messiah.

      Sadly, much of this has “taken a back seat”. We would gain a lot from following
their example and arousing genuine enthusiasm for the Return of the Messiah as
the Church prepares for this today. These Reflections on the Holy Gospels are
aimed at helping people recover this spiritual heritage.

       Our living of Jesus Christ’s teaching, to the best of our abilities, as members of His
Church, will help advance the coming of His Kingdom in final glory.

       Let us pray for one another to have the courage to confess our sin daily to God and to offer prayers of repentance.

Shalom!

Click here for a printable copy of the Reflection points

 

Mark 1: 1 — 8

Advent 2 Year B

NEW AMERICAN BIBLE

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
      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. 4 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    5 I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the
      holy Spirit.”

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 [1] 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 [6] 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
edition (c) 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine,
Washington D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner.
All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced
in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

  

 Appendix: Prayers of Repentance

Hebrew Prayers

 

 

 

• Turn us back, our Father,
to your Torah #, and draw us
near, our King, to your service,
and cause us to return in
complete repentance before you.  
Amen

 

 

• Blessed are you, O Lord
who desires repentance.
Amen

 

 

# Torah — means, The Teaching, the Word, and refers to the Way, the Truth, the expressed Will of God which leads to fullness of Life in Him.

 

 

 

 

From Psalm 51

Confession of Guilt

     Have mercy on me, O God, in Your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
     Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me. —
      For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always:
      “Against you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight”

 

Plea for inner conversion

      Cleanse me of sin with hyssop, that I may be purified; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. …..

Turn away your face from my sins, and blot out my guilt.
A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence, and your holy spirit take not from me.

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. Amen 

 

Christian Prayers

 

 

   My God
I am sorry for my sins
with all my heart.
In choosing to do wrong
and failing to do good
I have sinned against you
whom I should love above all things.
I firmly intend, with your help,
To do penance,
To sin no more,
And to avoid whatever leads me to sin.
Our Saviour Jesus Christ
suffered and died for us.
In His name, my God, have mercy.
Amen

 

 

 

 

•   O my God, I am very sorry
that I have sinned against you, because you are so good, and
with your help I will not sin again.
Amen 

 

 

 

 •   O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Amen 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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