Today’s reading is 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 send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’ ”
John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (ESV)
We begin with “the beginning.”
But the beginning of what, precisely? What are we delving into?
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” we read in verse 1. The original Greek word translated as “gospel” is εὐαγγέλιον (“euangelion”), which means “good news.” We can imagine we are looking at the front page of a newspaper that says “Breaking News: Jesus Christ.”
As we keep reading Mark, we will be opening up this newspaper to read the full story. The news we find will be some combination of what Jesus said, what he did, who he was, and what this means. This news is the gospel.
Before the story gets going, though, Mark draws us into another story, the story of Israel, through quotations from the books of the Israelite prophets Malachi and Isaiah. Malachi, several hundred years before Mark, wrote of a “messenger” who would “prepare the way” of God, and Isaiah described a voice in the wilderness crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Mark draws from these texts to show that the news he shares did not emerge from nothing. Instead, it is what the people of Israel have been waiting for.
John the Baptist
“The messenger,” Mark tells us, is John, and with characteristic brevity, Mark introduces us to him with simply, “John appeared,” without backstory or further explanation. We only read that he ended up by the Jordan River, doing some sort of “baptizing.”
Baptism is still found in every Christian church today. Now, as in John’s baptism, it is critically linked to repentance, which, at its core, means turning away from what goes against God (“sin”) and turning towards God. The call to repentance is never irrelevant to the Christian life. Yesterday morning at St. Pauls’ Ash Wednesday Mass, the priest encouraged us to make time during Lent to reflect upon our lives and our relationships with God. Whenever we examine ourselves, we usually recognize our sin and our need to repent. We are never perfect. We always must come back to God.
Baptism symbolizes this return to God by covering the baptized person with the water that washes away sin. In the early church and today, new Christians are baptized to symbolize the central instance of repentance of their lives: the time when they first confessed their sins to God and their desire to put their trust in God. Last fall, I experienced baptism at my church in Cambridge, and emerged from the waters excited about the Christian life ahead of me. (Technically, it was my second baptism. You can get read more of my story at Confessions of an Economics Concentrator.) I was dressed in swimming trunks and a t-shirt, and fell backwards into a water-filled horse trough in the middle of a YMCA gym. John would have been doing something similar, I imagine, though without the gym or the t-shirt.
Mightier Than I
One of the most fascinating things about John the Baptist is that he is completely uninterested in himself. In Mark, the only thing he says is about someone else: the person who would come after him. Though John had a quite a following (“all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem” Mark says, seemingly hyperbolically), he preaches that the one coming after him is “mightier than he.” In this way, John is a model for Christians who should aim not to earn praise for themselves, but to show that there is another person “whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.”
Jesus, as we will see in tomorrow’s reading, is this person. He is the real subject of this front-page news. The verses around Malachi 3:1, the passage quoted in Mark 1:2, help us see why. In this section of Malachi, the people ask “Where is the God of justice?” According to Malachi, God replies that he is sending his messenger to prepare the way, so that “the Lord you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” Mark tells us that John is this messenger; and where is the Lord, the God of justice? Mark will show us that, now that Jesus has arrived, He’s here.
Peter Hickman ’16 is an applied mathematics concentrator living in Leverett House, the editor-in-chief of the Ichthus, and the proud roommate of Henry Li.