John the Baptist is always featured in Advent, as the historic forerunner of Jesus in his ministry. His prophecy builds up a sense of expectation: something new and exciting is coming!
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
These are the opening words of the section of the book identified as ‘Second Isaiah’ (It was written earlier than last week’s selection.) The Hebrew nation had been conquered by Babylon and many had been taken away into exile. ‘First Isaiah’, Jeremiah and other prophets had warned them of this beforehand, blaming the sins and faithlessness of the leaders for the loss of their kingdom. Now after the period of Exile a new prophetic voice is heard, telling them the time as come for their return to Israel.
The author of this book is one of the most powerful writers of the Old Testament, deeply thoughtful and movingly poetic. The basic form of Hebrew poetry is ‘parallelism’, with two lines supporting or contrasting each other, and that is used to great effect by Second Isaiah. He upholds the mercy of God, as well as God’s justice and is one of the first Old Testament writers to show God reaching out to all nations, not just the ‘chosen’ Hebrew people. That is in today’s reading with the words of ‘all mankind’ witnessing God’s salvation.
‘Double punishment’ does not mean God would exact more than deserved; it echoes one of the warnings of Jeremiah, which meant to highlight the seriousness of the injustices that led to downfall. ‘A voice’: this is the way the prophet ‘heard’ the message that was God’s revelation to him. This selection uses the arrangement of the Hebrew scripture which indicates that ‘A voice is heard’ and what follows is what the voice says :‘Prepare the way in the desert…’ (The different emphasis of the Greek version of Isaiah is quoted in the gospels.) The desert or wilderness was at that time the land between Babylon and Jerusalem, but figuratively recalls the Exodus from Egypt through the Sinai desert. This suggests God is preparing a new start and again leading the people to liberation.
The third oracle uses the poetic idea of a feminine image for Jerusalem/Zion who is urged to call out the news of God’s coming to His people. This image represents ‘the purified people of Israel on the way of the Lord.’ (Carroll Stuhmueller, CP) These words give a special urgency to the message, something to recall in Advent when the Second Coming seems far away.
The final words are set in a double parallelism, with the paradox of God as a conqueror over the oppressors, but at the same time a tender shepherd caring for the most vulnerable of the flock.
2 Peter 3:8-14
This is one of the books of the Bible that scholars think are ‘pseudonymous’ – that is, presented in the name of a well-known leader but by a later writer. This was a common practice among both classical and biblical writers and does not deny the value of the book. This recognition helps, however, in interpreting the message. Jerome H. Neyrey, SJ, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary says 2 Peter should be viewed alongside Greek and Jewish debates in the first century about God’s providence and judgment. Using terms familiar to both, it seeks to make the church tradition ‘equally intelligible to Jew and Greek.’ It was a time when the hope of Christ’s early return was challenged by a longer wait than expected, and the first part of our reading deals with that. The theme of waiting and living ‘holy and saintly lives’ is again what we have been hearing in recent weeks. The unknown author uses cosmic language to symbolize the unimaginable effects that will result in a ‘new heaven and a new earth’. Hope and encouragement characterize the spirit of Advent.
This is the opening of St Mark’s Gospel, and the first line serves as a title, and also tells us what Mark will unfold in the story. In our times, it might be called a ‘spoiler’ for it tells the reader/listener what will be hidden throughout most of the book from those around Jesus, and only fully clear at his death and resurrection. Without any earlier background such as we find in Matthew and Luke, Mark goes directly to the opening of Jesus’ public life, which in all gospels and Acts, begins with the teaching of John the Baptizer and his promise of ‘one greater’ coming after him.
‘Beginning’ – some see a reference to the first book of the Hebrew bible which starts with the same word. Another possible reference to a new beginning is the location of John’s baptizing at the river Jordan which was the final barrier crossed by the Hebrews when they entered the Promised Land after the Exodus. (The account of this is in Joshua 3-4.) Whether Mark intended a direct recollection, the whole passage gives a sense of God doing something new, which paradoxically fulfils the promises made in the past.
A definite reference to the Old Testament comes with quotations, which are actually from three different locations. Most manuscripts say they are from ‘Isaiah the prophet’ – with a few ‘correcting’ to ‘the prophets’. This is the first, but not the last time, when we may ask if being strictly accurate on such details mattered to Mark. Early Christians viewed the older writings in a creative way, finding meaning that was not apparent at the time of writing. The first lines recall Exodus 23:20, where to lead the Hebrews through the desert, God sent an ‘angel’ (the usual translation, but the Hebrew word means ‘messenger’ and that is what fits here). Malachi 3:1 speaks of the one will prepare the way and adds later that it will be Elijah, the prophet who was taken up into heaven. The final quotation is Isaiah from the same passage as the first reading. By changing, as it were, quotation marks, the voice speaks in the wilderness and so it can be applied to the preaching of John. Without actually saying so, Mark makes a claim that Jesus is ‘the Lord’ whose way is being prepared.
John was well known at the time and Mark does not identify him or tell any more about his ministry beyond its relation to Jesus. (Compare Luke’s details.) Mark’s casual language is fond of exaggeration of numbers, so ‘all’ is not to be taken literally, but it does carry the idea that John’s message was meant for all of Judea. We know of no other similar ministry of baptizing others, but the imagery of water washing the body as sin being washed away is a natural one. The people show the ‘repentance’ or ‘conversion’ John calls for by confessing their need of forgiveness.
Mark makes a point of what John wore, which was the same as that of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8. Later he will record Jesus saying John is the Elijah promised in Malachi (9:11-13). Next comes what is important for Mark: a description that will be applied to Jesus of the ‘one more powerful’. ‘Sandal straps’: it was said by the rabbis that a disciple should serve his master in all things, except the lowliest task of removing dusty sandals. This shows the utter humility John feels in relation to the Lord he is preparing for.
The way Mark opens his gospel alerts us to the way he uses simple language and narration to make profound points. In a few verses, he shows how the God who spoke through the Old Testament, is now working to produce a new revelation. (See the ‘Introduction to Mark’ on the website for more examples of Mark’s technique.)
After this reading today, we do not hear from Mark again till January on the feast of the Baptism of Jesus, which in the Gospel itself comes right after this section.