Year B Advent 2nd Sunday: Mark 1:1-8

1:1 The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
1:2 It is written in the prophet Isaiah:
“Look, I am going to send my messenger in front of you
to prepare your way before you.
1:3 A voice of one that cries in the desert:
Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight….”
1:4 John the Baptist was in the desert,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
1:5 All Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him,
and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins.
1:6 John wore a garment of camel-skin, and he lived on locusts and wild honey.
1:7 In the course of his preaching he said,
'After me is coming someone who is more powerful than me,
and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals.
1:8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.'

Context & Information

The story of Jesus begins with John the Baptist. They belong inextricably to each other. In the first line Mark pretends to tell about Jesus that he is the Messiah. According to the belief in those days the coming of the Messiah would be preceded by the prophet Elijah (cfr. Mark 9:11). To be trustworthy Mark has to make clear that Jesus-Messiah was preceded by Elijah. This Elijah was John the Baptist. To illustrate that, Mark describes John the Baptist in terms of Elijah. He lives in the desert as Elijah did (1 Kings 17:1-7); and he wore a garment of camel-skin with a leather belt around his loins (the last detail amazingly omitted in the reading!?). That was exactly the outfit by which Elijah was to be recognized (2 Kings 1:8)!

In short, John is the precursor of Jesus, the one who prepares the way Jesus will go after him. Everything that is told about John will later be told about Jesus. To give some examples: John in the desert; Jesus later in the desert (1:12-13). John preaching; Jesus preaching (1:14); John will be delivered (1:14) and killed (6:27) for God’s sake; Jesus as well.

The most stunning example is hidden in the word ‘crying’ (vs.3). The Greek word used there expresses a very strong form of ‘crying’: it is used for storms and for the sound of cattle. A better translation would be ‘hurling’ or even ‘bellowing’. That rare word is used by Mark in his Gospel for one other occasion: when Jesus ‘bellows’ on the cross, ‘My God, my God…’ (15:34). Even in the ’bellowing’ John is the precursor of Jesus!

John preaches a baptism of ‘repentance’. A better translation would be ‘a mind changing baptism’. That is more than repentance. I have to change my mindset; to think and do as the Lord thinks and does. John himself explains that very well in his last words, ‘I baptized you with water, the one who comes after me will baptize you in (not ‘with’) Holy Spirit.’ He will submerge you, wrap you in Holy Spirit. He will clothe you in the love, the grace and the mercy of God.

John the Baptist in his camel hair outfit, preaching and baptizing. At his feet: the prophet Isaiah who announced him as the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah.2000, Peter Clare; detail Mark painting.

Picture Meditation

I am looking at a stained glass window, ca 1900, in the church of St Petrock, Little-Petherick, Cornwall. (photograph taken by Fr Dries)

I see John the Baptist and three of his listeners. John is going barefoot, in the history of art it is an indication that he is following the ways of the Lord. He is clothed in the leather belt and in the camel hair. To illustrate that, the artist pictures the head of the camel hanging before John’s chest. John is looking very severely; underlining his words with a dramatic gesture of both his hands. Which words does he speak at this very moment?

I look at the audience. There is a man in blue sitting on his knees, looking up to John and knocking on his chest: all signs that he is ‘repenting’. Behind him a man in orange/brown - with his hand at his head: does he think about John’s words? Is he trying to adapt John’s words to his own life?

Behind him a soldier in red, standing upright. Is he only there to supervise what is gong on? Or is he a real listener as well?

Can I identify myself with one of them? And if not, if I would have had the possibility to advise the artist: in what way would I have preferred to be pictured in this scene?

Does this picture help me to prepare myself for the feast of Christmas?

I finish my meditation with a talk to one of the listeners, to John the Baptist; to the Lord...

by Fr Dries van den Akker SJ