Sunday of week 2 of Advent (B)

Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8
THE CENTRAL FIGURE in today’s Mass is John the Baptist. And the overall theme of the readings is the announcement and preparation for the coming of the Lord. As we saw last week, that coming needs to be understood on more than one level and that is made clear especially in the Second Reading today.
The Gospel today is the opening of the gospel according to Mark. He sets the theme for his gospel in his opening sentence: “The beginning of the Good News (euangelion, ‘go[d]spel’) about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That is the story he wants to tell, or rather, the good news he wants to proclaim. Unlike John’s gospel, where the full identity of Jesus is put in the very first chapter, Mark’s presentation is one of a gradually unfolding identity of the man Jesus. It reaches its climax and completion when – surprisingly, not a disciple but – a pagan soldier at the foot of the cross says in awe: “Truly this man was Son of God!”

John the Baptist

The story proper then begins with the appearance of John the Baptist. His role is to announce and to prepare people for the coming of Jesus. The Gospel describes him as fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy. Mark attributes this prophecy to Isaiah but in fact it also combines phrases from the Exodus and the prophet Malachi. It is clear that the “voice crying in the wilderness” is that of John the Baptist and that Jesus is the “Lord” whose coming is being prepared for.
The original text in Isaiah spoke of the Israelites’ return from exile in Babylon and was a classic text of God’s comfort and salvation for his people. But here John is preparing the people for the coming of Jesus.
There is no doubt that John was a prominent and charismatic figure who drew large crowds of people. His whole lifestyle spoke of a prophetic figure in the image of Elijah. John’s clothing is similar to Elijah’s. His unorthodox diet speaks of severe asceticism or ritual purity. And he lives in the “wilderness” or the desert.
The desert always has a special significance in Scripture. It is a holy place, a place where God is specially to be found. It is also a place of struggle. It was in the desert that the Israelites spent 40 years on their way to the Promised Land. It was in the desert that Jesus had his tussle with the Evil One. It was in the desert that Jesus often went to pray and in the desert that he fed the people.
Only a fore-runner
We are told that “all of Judea and all of the people of Jerusalem” went out to hear John. Judea was the southern province where Jerusalem was situated. He performed a washing ceremony as a symbol of people’s repentance for their sins and their desire to change their lives in preparation for the coming of God’s Kingdom. When Jesus arrives on the scene he will announce that that Kingdom, through his presence, is “close at hand”.
John makes it clear that, despite his popularity and influence, he is only God’s “messenger”. Someone far more important is on the way. “I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals,” says John, describing a task given only to slaves. (As a sign of special significance and symbolism this is exactly what Jesus himself will do for his disciples at the Last Supper.) John’s role was to serve Jesus and to serve the people. “He must increase, I must decrease,” he says elsewhere (John 3:30). His whole life points to Jesus as Lord and Messiah.

Time for reflection and renewal

We read these texts today in the context of preparing for Christmas and the coming of the Lord into our own lives. Christmas, as was pointed out in last week’s reflections, is not simply the commemoration of a historic event in the distant past. It is a time for reflection and personal renewal about the coming of Jesus into my life, into the life of our Christian communities and into our wider society.
The Second Reading, from the Second Letter of Peter, reminds us, on the one hand, of God’s great desire to come into our lives and, on the other, of the need to be prepared for that coming when it happens. Although people sometimes complain that God seems oblivious to their needs, the Letter reminds us that “the Lord is not being slow to carry out his promises”. On the contrary, “he is being patient with you all, wanting nobody to be lost and everybody to be brought to change his ways”. Perhaps that is where the problem can lie. People want God’s help and comfort but they are not prepared to change their ways, not prepared for a genuine conversion. For God to come to us, we also need to go to him.
Peter also speaks of the “Day of the Lord”, that final coming when God will call us all to account. As in the Gospel, God is described as coming “like a thief in the night”. The only sensible way to prepare for that Day is to live “holy and saintly lives”. “While you are waiting, do your best to live lives without spot or stain so that he will find you at peace.” It is clear from the author’s words that some Christians at the time were expecting the Lord to return imminently and wondering why he was so long in coming. At the same time, they waited in fear and trepidation for the judgement. But he did not come then nor has he come yet, although, of course, in another sense he has come for everyone who has left this life. And he will certainly be coming for us – sooner or later. But there is no need to be filled with fear and anxiety.
On the other hand, those who are constantly in the company of their Lord will be at peace in spite of storms raging around them. For them, the Day of the Lord holds no fears. For them every day is Christmas and that is what makes Christmas so special to them. For them, every day is a Day of the Lord.

John’s role – a model for us

There is a further reflection we might make today concerning the role of John the Baptist. For he should help us to reflect that there have been many John the Baptists in my own life, many people who have helped me to find Jesus, to know, love and serve him better. If we are born Catholics, then there are our parents who got us baptised and led us into our first understandings of our faith. Some of us have had wonderfully Christian parents; others may not have been so blessed. If we become Christians as adults, there are those people who were instrumental in our coming to believe and follow Jesus. In addition there are all the sermons and talks we have heard, the books we have read, the retreats we have done, the people who have been a real inspiration to us… Today would be a very good day to say a special ‘Thank you!’ to them, if not directly, then at least through our prayers for them.
A second point is that John the Baptist reminds us that we, too, have a responsibility to proclaim the Good News of the coming of Jesus and to help people know and love him and experience his love in their lives just as other people have brought us to where we are. It is not easy in our society to find Jesus and to accept his values and vision of life. People need people who can help “make a straight highway for God” to enter their lives. Valleys need to be filled in, obstructing mountains and hills laid low, cliffs become plains, ridges become accessible valleys. “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all mankind shall see it.”

A joyful message

We have a responsibility as Christians not only to ourselves but bring the Good News of God’s love to others. We need to present a message that is full of joy, a joy that is clearly mirrored in our own behaviour, because it flows out from an inner core of wisdom and peace. We have to present our faith not as something formidable and repressive and difficult but as bringing true liberation into people’s lives. We need to present a picture of God “like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering the lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast”.
People are longing to hear a message that brings trust and hope, truth and integrity, peace and security, justice and compassion. This message will not just drop from the skies. People are not normally granted private revelations. It depends on us to “prepare a way for the Lord” and be voices crying in the affluent wildernesses of our cities. “How can they call to him for help if they have not believed? And how can they believe if they have not heard the message? And how can they hear if the message is not proclaimed? And how can the message be proclaimed if the messengers are not sent out?… So then, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message comes from [hearing] the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-15,17).
We have been blessed by all the people who have brought Jesus to us. The least that can be expected of us is to do the same for others. What better Christmas gift could we give to anyone than to help them know and love Jesus our Lord as the Way for their lives?

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