Today is a bridge between the season of Christmas and ‘the Ordinary Time of the year’. We have moved from the birth of Jesus to the beginning of his public life, and the prelude of that is the event of coming to John the Baptiser on the river Jordan. The first two readings mention ‘water’, and perhaps were chosen for that hint of baptism.
These are the concluding words of a prophet whose words heralded the return from the Exile in Babylon. His/her first words, in chapter 40 were ‘comfort’ and so it is often called ‘The Book of Consolation’. This is a long selection with many poetic descriptions encouraging a return to a forgiving God with hope, trust and joy. At a time when traditionally we feast over Christmas, but this year many are struggling just to have enough for their families to eat, the invitation to an abundance of food can seem attractive. More likely, Second Isaiah is using feasting as a symbol of all that we need to survive and more that survive, celebrate. It would emphasise spiritual nourishment.
After that that comes the promise that the covenant made with David is being fulfilled. For the prophet’s time, that was likely in the whole of a restored Israel which would reach out to the world. For Christians, that comes literally true in Jesus, a leader and lawgiver for the whole world. ‘The Holy One of Israel’ echoes the favourite title of earlier parts of Isaiah, and we have it again in the response following.
The nearness of God to all who seek them has an echo in Jesus, God among us. Then we are reminded as a paradox of how far above human limitations God is, something that has to be held together with God ‘available’ to us when we seek the Lord. This is extended by the image of God’s word poured out on us like rain, and carrying out the intent of love, and is also the basis of the love we accept and return to the Lord.
The response this week is not as usual a selection from Psalms, but a hymn from Isaiah of Jerusalem who prophesied before the exile. There is almost a pun in the first line we read, for the name ‘Isaiah’ means ‘The Lord is my salvation’. It fits well to the joy and hope of the previous reading.
1 John 5:1-9
Although we call this a ‘letter’ it has none of the marks of the usual letters, like a greeting and conclusion. Henry Wambrough, in Revised New Jerusalem Bible, suggests it is more a ‘teaching document’, coming from the circle that produced the Gospel of John, but shows differences and is not by the same author. It has emphases on Jesus as the ‘source of life love and truth especially the love between members of the community.’ Today’s selection is near the end and perhaps meant as encouragement for those who have followed the commandments stressed earlier to love. It seems chosen for the witness of Jesus in ‘water and blood’ – thus considering the ‘water witness’ of the vision and words spoken when Jesus was baptised
We heard the introduction to the coming of John back in Advent, and you may want to read it now for continuity. Of the various accounts of the events around the baptism of Jesus, Mark’s is the shortest and simplest, and this will often be true of the whole of this gospel in comparison to the other three. But simple does not mean it does not have a profound and subtle message. The details often matter. For example, Mark told us that the people who came to be baptised ‘confessed their sins’, but he leaves that out for Jesus’ coming to be baptised. The ‘why’ Jesus came is not described, the focus will be on the Spirit and the words spoken from heaven identifying him as God’s beloved son.
Mark will often use simple, everyday comparisons, but ‘like a dove’ is one that may not be so easy to understand, as Mark does not seem to be saying it looked like a dove. Perhaps the idea is that as a bird can move from earth to sky, the coming of the Spirit was similarly a passing between God’s heaven and earth. The vivid picture of the sky ‘torn open’ may be taken from the ancient picture of the world (as in Genesis) of a real separation like a membrane between our ground and what lies above it. With modern science we speak of it as ‘space’. I think Mark is looking for words to describe an experience that is beyond normal happenings and beyond our usual perceptions.
In Mark, it is presented more as if private to Jesus, not even John is mentioned as hearing it. In a way, there is a ‘pause’ here if you read this gospel slowly and thoughtfully. Nothing more is said about the experience nor reactions of anyone else present. Mark lets us for a moment stand on the banks of the Jordan at a point where history changed, and a new story begins of God’s relation to the world of creation.