10 December [Second Sunday of Advent]
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'" John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit."
These are the first words of the earliest gospel. It is the gospel that will be with us most often during this present Liturgical year. Mark's is also the shortest of the four gospels, and was probably written sometime between 60 and 70 AD. In the first thirty (or so) years of its life the Church had no written gospels. What it had was an oral tradition: memories shared by people who had known Jesus, or who knew people who had known him.
It is "good news," Mark writes, even though there is a strong emphasis throughout on the suffering of Jesus, and the final third of this short gospel is devoted to the last week of his life. How such a tragic story could be good news is the mystery we are plunged into from the opening words. Clearly, it is only with hindsight that anyone could call it good news. That hindsight is provided by the resurrection.
'Provided'? We should not be too quick to provide the solution to this tragic story. The resurrection does not slip into place like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Unlike all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the last piece is no surprise. But the resurrection is from beyond the frame, so it is right to speak of "the surprise of the resurrection." In Mark's gospel Jesus seems reluctant even to be recognised as the Messiah, the Promised One; he refers to himself only as the "Son of Man," and orders his followers to tell no one about him until after his resurrection (Mark 9:9); this is called the "Messianic Secret".
In this Advent season we are to let the story develop in its own way, so that we too can experience the surprise of the resurrection. We are not advised to skip to the end. And so, like many a story, Mark's gospel begins at a certain distance from the main subject. It begins with John the Baptist. Next Sunday's gospel reading is also about him. The point seems to be that we have to learn to wait – a difficult thing for us who move so fast, and who tend to concentrate on facts rather than their meaning, and who prefer to see results rather than contemplate their causes. Advent is a season of depth, and waiting….
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