The Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent comes from the first chapter of Mark. Mark has no account of the birth or infancy of Jesus. The Gospel of Mark, founder of the Church in North Africa, is quite brief and it was likely written for the Christians in Alexandria, Egypt. Mark’s Christian community in Alexandria would have been small relative to the total population in the first century A.D. As Mark is not one of the twelve apostles, it is unsurprising that his Gospel is the shortest of the four.
Our reading today features John the Baptist, the herald of the Messiah and the last Jewish prophet to anticipate the coming of the Savior (Mt 11:9). Of John the Baptist, Jesus said there is no greater born of a woman (Mt 11:11). John is the cousin of Jesus, and he was beheaded by Herod at the bequest of Herod’s wife and daughter. Mark makes clear, in his own way, that John the Baptist is a prophet.
Here is the Gospel reading, Mark 1:1-8,
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.”
John the Baptist appeared in the desert
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
People of the whole Judean countryside
and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
John was clothed in camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist.
He fed on locusts and wild honey.
And this is what he proclaimed:
“One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Thus Mark begins his Gospel by introducing us to the prophecy and testimony of John the Baptist. The Sacred Author tells us that John the Baptist is the messenger, or the forerunner, who will prepare the way of the Lord. Before looking at our passage, we should take note that all four Evangelists (Mt 3:3, Mk 1:2, Lk 3:4 and Jn 1:23) recall John the Baptist declaring Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths, or words to that effect. John the Baptist is, for all four Gospel authors, an important figure who is the herald of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Mark Invokes Three Different Scriptural Passages in the Old Testament
In the first six verses of Mark’s Gospel, Mark makes three claims. First, he suggests that a Messianic prophecy in Isaiah is about to be fulfilled. Second, he suggests that John the Baptist is a messenger, or prophet of God, spoken of in the Book of Malachi. Third, the Sacred Author establishes that John the Baptist fulfills an Old Testament prophecy whereby the prophet Elijah would announce the coming of the Lord. In this case, it is not Elijah, but John the Baptist, who announces the coming of the Lord in the person of Jesus Christ.
Let’s consider the context of the phrase prepare the way of the Lord in Isaiah 40:1-3.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
This passage from Isaiah 40 tells us that we should prepare for the Lord’s arrival, in the desert. Some scholars suggest Isaiah invokes the memory of the Exodus account. Just as the Israelites fled Egypt along a desert ‘highway’ into the Promised Land, so to shall the Messiah return. For the Israelites, the glory of the Lord was a pillar of fire or a column of smoke (the shekinah) that led them out of slavery. Yet the next savior to come from the desert shall be revealed,… for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. We suspect that when the glory of the Lord comes again, it will not be a pillar of fire, but rather a person revealed to God’s people.
Next, Mark invokes the prophet Malachi. Consider Malachi 3:1,
Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
Malachi 3:1 refines the prophecy in Isaiah, telling us that a messenger will prepare the way of the Lord. We see Mark invoke this prophecy in verse 3. Let’s look at Malachi 4:4-5 as well:
Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. “Behold, I will send you Eli’jah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.
Malachi tells us that that the prophet Elijah will be sent when the Day of the Lord comes. This passage is generally associated with a prophecy regarding the day of judgment. However, Mark understands the arrival of Jesus Christ as inaugurating the Kingdom of God, and thus the Day of the Lord is at hand. Returning to our passage in the Gospel of Mark, the author implies that John the Baptist fulfills the role of the prophet Elijah in anticipating the coming of the Lord. Mark tells us in verse 6 that John the Baptist was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. Consider the near word-for-word parallel with 2 Kings 1:8: They answered him, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” He said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”
Is this a coincidence? Probably not. Mark the Evangelist sees a parallel between John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophet Elijah. According to the Book of Malachi, Elijah will announce the coming of the Lord. And of course, this in no way diminishes the possibility that Elijah may yet return to announce the Day of the Lord – the return of Jesus.
The Work of the Holy Spirit
In verse 8, John the Baptist tells us that while he baptizes with water, one will come who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. In the first chapter of Mark, we have seen that Mark tries to establish the credibility of John the Baptist. He is the one who, according to the prophecies in Isaiah and Malachi, will announce the coming of the Messiah. But Mark also mentions the Holy Spirit three times in the first chapter of his Gospel. Mark tells us that the Lord will baptize with the Holy Spirit in verse 8, that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus “like a dove” in verse 10, and the same spirit drove Jesus into the desert in verse 12.
In Mark 1:3, Mark invokes Isaiah 40. Isaiah tells us that we must make straight in the desert a highway for our Lord. Then in verse 12, Mark draws the connection between the prophecy in Isaiah 40 and Jesus. Mark tells us that Jesus heads into the desert, in Exodus-like fashion, for “forty days.”
Blog Post for 1st Sunday of Advent, Mk 13:33-37.
Blog Post for 3rd Sunday of Advent, Jn 1:6-8,19-28.