Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent (10 December 2017)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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 baptizer 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 baptized 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 baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:1-8 – NRSV)
St Augustine (De consensus evangelistarum 1.2.4) declared that Mark was primarily a follower of Matthew. This view became standard in Christian history until the 19th century. In fact Matthew includes roughly 90% of Mark, lending some plausibility to Augustine’s view. However, modern scholarship has radically changed that perspective: “Since the rise of historical criticism the situation could not be more different. Virtually every major movement in the modern study of the Gospels has emerged in dialogue with Mark. Of particular importance was the development of the ‘Two-Source’ hypothesis regarding the Synoptic Gospels. .... Basically the Two-Source hypothesis argues that Matthew and Luke used as written sources the Gospel of Mark and another source called Q (from the German Quelle meaning ‘source’). This latter source consists of roughly 335 verses, mostly sayings of Jesus, that Matthew and Luke share in common but that are not found in Mark. Many considerations have been adduced and debated, consisting of literary observations, logic of usage, and theological concerns, to argue that Mark is thus the earliest gospel so that, in effect, Matthew and Luke remain its earliest commentaries. Most New Testament scholars favour the priority of Mark on the basis of certain ways in which Matthew and Luke are related to Mark. Generally Matthew and Luke follow the Markan order of events and actual wording, and when they diverge from Mark they rarely agree in their divergences. This suggests that Matthew and Luke must not have known each other, and that they used Mark and Q independently” (John R Donohue and Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Liturgical Press, 2002, 4.)
In the late 19th century there was a widely held view that the Gospels are “artless writings” (Donohue and Harrington, op cit, 12.) The distinguished Oxford literary critic, Helen Gardner, countered this view in her 1959 work, The Business of Criticism: “Reading the Gospel (of Mark) is like reading a poem. It is an imaginative experience. It presents us with a sequence of events and sayings which combine to create in our minds a single complex and powerful symbol, a pattern of meaning. Reading St Mark is quite unlike reading a series of entries made by a compiler of annals, or a collection of separate anecdotes.” (Cited by Donohue and Harrington, op cit, 12.)
Mark is the only one to use the singular noun euangelion (ie good news or gospel) and he uses it seven times (1:1, 14 & 15; 8:35; 10:29; 13:10; 14:9). Mark did not invent the term though, as the same noun is found on an inscription dating from 9 BCE announcing the birthday of Augustus. A plural form of the noun is found in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew root bsr which is used of a joyful or important message delivered by a designated messenger – for example 1 Samuel 31:9; Nahum 1:15; Jeremiah 20:14-15. St Paul, however, gives the term a distinctive Christian focus, using it more than sixty times to speak of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – for example, 1 Thessalonians 1:2-9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Romans 1:1. “If, as is highly likely, Mark knew the Pauline tradition, then theologically Mark’s Gospel can be understood as the proclamation of the Christ event in narrative form.” (Donohue and Harrington, op cit, 14.)
In Mark’s Gospel, the various people associated with Jesus – including the disciples until after the resurrection – do not seem to know who he is. Yet Mark begins by telling the reader precisely who Jesus is – he is “the Christ” (Messiah, Anointed One) and he is “Son of God”. It is as if the reader is let in on a secret. This adds to the drama and the sense of tragedy, as the story unfolds. “As the Pauline letters show, by Mark’s time, ‘Jesus Christ (=Messiah)’ had become virtually a proper name.” (Donohue and Harrington, op cit, 60.) The title “Son of God” is omitted here in some manuscripts. However there seems to be good reason to include it, given Mark’s use of the title in other places. Mark uses this title or variations of it as a description of Jesus a number of times – for example ‘beloved (or only) son’ (1:11; 9:7; 12:6), ‘the Son’ (13:32), ‘Son of God’ (3:11), ‘Son of the Most High God’ (5:7), ‘son of the blessed one’ (14:61), and ‘a (or the) Son of God’ (15:39). The last mentioned is the affirmation of the centurion at the foot of the cross – the title then is used at the beginning and end of the story of Jesus according to Mark. “The introduction of Jesus by these titles also immediately shows that the writer proceeds out of adoration for Jesus, and that the work is written not from the standpoint of unconcerned historical observance but with deeply religious interests in mind. (L W Hurtado, Mark, Baker Books, 2011, 15.)
From the very beginning Mark makes it clear that he regards the Hebrew Scriptures as an authoritative text: “As it is written ....” “Neither Jesus nor John appeared ‘out of the blue’ but, rather, as fulfilment of God’s plan of redemption. This attitude, that the OT is a record of God’s work and plan and that Jesus must be interpreted as fulfilment of the work and word of God in the OT, is reflected throughout the New Testament (NT) writings and received continuing expression as the church used the OT writings as Scripture in its subsequent history. This view is, of course, formally reflected in the inclusion of the OT as part of the Christian Bible—a decision still accepted by all the major branches of Christianity today. The early Christians not only saw Jesus prefigured in certain OT prophecies of a coming redemption, but in addition, they regarded Jesus as the culmination of all God had done in the OT. In this sense, virtually everything in the OT seemed to have anticipated and pre-figured Jesus and thus gained its ‘fulfilment’ in him.” (Hurtado, op cit, 15-16) The Hebrew Scriptures are in fact cited more than 300 times in the Christian Scriptures. In each of the Gospels we see a tension emerging between continuity and discontinuity – Jesus and the work of God in him, represents a fulfilment of the Covenant which is different from what the religious leaders had come to expect.
Matthew 3:1-12, Luke 3:1-20 and John 1:19-28 all have versions of this same story with reference to the prophecy of Isaiah and its fulfilment in John the Baptist.
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark has no infancy narrative. Mark plunges straight into the adult life and ministry of Jesus.
good news: “The gospel of which Mark speaks is not a book, as it is for Matthew (1:1, ‘A record [Gk. biblos ] of the genealogy of Jesus Christ’). Rather, for Mark the gospel is the story of salvation in Jesus. The word for ‘gospel’ (Gk. euangelion) literally means ‘good news’. In both the OT and in Greek literature euangelion was commonly used of reports of victory from the battlefield. When the Philistines defeated the troops of Saul on Mt. Gilboa, ‘they sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim the news (euangelizesthai) ... among the people’ (1 Sam 31:9; see also 2 Sam 1:20; 18:19–20; 1 Chr 10:9). The messenger who brought the report was the deliverer of ‘good news’ (2 Sam 4:10; 18:26). Among the Greeks the term was used likewise of victory in battle, as well as of other forms of good news. In 9 B.C., within a decade of Jesus’ birth, the birthday of Caesar Augustus (63 B.C.–A.D. 14) was hailed as euangelion (pl.). Since he was hailed as a god, Augustus’s ‘birthday signaled the beginning of Good News for the world’. In the Greco-Roman world the word always appears in the plural, meaning one good tiding among others; but in the NT euangelion appears only in the singular: the good news of God in Jesus Christ, beside which there is no other. The concept of ‘good news’ was not limited to military and political victories, however. In the prophet Isaiah ‘good news’ is transferred to the inbreaking of God’s final saving act when peace, good news, and release from oppression will be showered on God’s people (Isa 52:7; 61:1–3). For Mark, the advent of Jesus is the beginning of the fulfillment of the ‘good news’ heralded by Isaiah.
“If, as seems probable, Mark is the first evangelist, then he also inaugurates a new literary genre in applying the term ‘gospel’ to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. For Mark, the gospel refers to the fulfillment of God’s reign and salvation in the fullness of time (Isa 52:7; 61:1). In the appearance of Jesus in Galilee, a new age has dawned that requires repentance and faith. Mark’s written record of Jesus’ life is itself called a Gospel, and thus this same Jesus who overcame the grave in the resurrection from the dead is now the living Lord who is at work in the church and world, calling people to faith in the gospel. In Mark’s understanding, therefore, the gospel is more than a set of truths, or even a set of beliefs. It is a person, ‘the gospel of Jesus Christ’. The kingdom that God inaugurates is bodily present in Jesus of Nazareth.” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 24-25.)
the wilderness: The use of the term eremos, meaning wilderness or desert, has enormous resonance for the Jews. It recalls the time of wandering in the desert – see Exodus 19-24. The reference to Isaiah also recalls the prophecy that the desert will be again a place of redemption.
the prophet Isaiah: There is a problem here. While Mark 1:3 has a connection with Isaiah 40:3-5 – “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. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” – Mark 1:2 – “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” – is not from Isaiah. One scholar notes: “The formula links the good news specifically to the writings of “Isaiah the prophet.” This ascription is technically incorrect, since only 1:3 (the description of the voice crying in the wilderness) is actually from Isaiah, while 1:2b (the description of the messenger) is a mélange of Exod 23:20 and Mal 3:1. Such conflation of OT texts is familiar from postbiblical Judaism, especially from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and is common in Mark (see 1:11; 12:36; 14:24; 14:27, 62; cf. Kee, “Function,” 181) and elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g. Matt 27:9–10; Rom 3:11–18; 9:25–26; 1 Pet 2:6–8). Mark’s ascription of the whole catena to Isaiah could simply be a mistake, but it is more likely that Mark is deliberately setting his story in an Isaian context. Mark seems to have a special attachment to Isaiah; he is the only OT author mentioned by name in the Gospel (here and in 7:6), and the prologue is full of allusions to Deutero-Isaiah (see the introduction to 1:1–15).” (J Marcus, Mark 1–8: a new translation with introduction and commentary (Vol. 27), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 147.)
baptism: “The translation ‘baptism’ risks anachronistic interpretation as a fixed initiation rite. In Greek baptein and baptizein mean ‘dip’ or ‘immerse,’ and in the middle voice, ‘wash oneself’. Mark knows of Jewish ritual washings (7:4) and also uses ‘baptism’ metaphorically as being ‘drenched’ in suffering (10:38-39). Both the origin and meaning of John’s baptism are disputed. Two different proposals have emerged: (1.) Water rituals of purification known from the OT and Qumran (Leviticus 14:5-6, 50-52; Numbers 19:13, 20-21), which are symbols of interior purification (Isaiah 1:16; Psalm 51:7; 1QS 3:4-12; 4:20-22; 1QH 7:6-7; 17:26); and (2.) proselyte baptism, which was a ritual washing of initiation for converts to Judaism. Problems attend both as a background to John’s baptism. Ritual washings are self-administered and are repeated frequently, while John is the agent of a baptism that is not repeated, prepares for the eschaton, and implies moral conversion. Proselyte baptism is not clearly attested in the NT period, nor does John seek to form a community of baptized persons only around himself. John Meier (A Marginal Jew 2:53-55) suggests that John’s practice of baptism should be regarded as original.” (Donahue and Harrington, op cit, 62.)
The eminent Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, writes: “Knowing is not due to coming upon something, naming and explaining it. Knowing is due to something forcing itself upon us.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who is Man?, Stanford University Press, 1965, 109.) Under the influence of Greek culture and thinking, the Christian Tradition has tended to lose its roots in the kind of knowing that Heschel is describing – the kind of knowing that characterized Jesus and his contemporaries. We modern Westerners are thus vulnerable to the mistake – a potentially a very destructive one – of confusing information with formation, of thinking ideas about Jesus necessarily connect us with Jesus. We do need to be informed about Jesus and his teachings. But it is far more important that we be formed in Christ. St Paul sums it up: “I live now not I but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19). Again, when addressing the community in Phlippi: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5). Matthew is suggesting something similar: “‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven’” (7:21).
Today’s Gospel – Mark 1:1-8 – makes a crucial connection for us. We hear the announcement of “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. This is information. Wonderful information! But still, only information. How does it become formation in Christ, the stuff of true holiness? Mark tells us. He goes on to say that John the Baptizer demands “a baptism of repentance”. The Greek word – here translated as “repentance” – is metanoias. It means literally “change of mind”. In that historical and cultural setting – unlike our own – that meant a radical change to the way one engages the world of people, events and things. A “change of mind” is a change of ones very being in the world. The Baptizer says this is a necessity, not an option.
“Before such need, how superficial, pathetically superficial, is much of the busyness with renewal. We reformers know so much about religion and about the Church and about theology, but we stand empty-handed and uncomfortable when confronted with sheer hunger for God. Holiness is less easily acquired than fluency in contemporary thinking. But people who, after listening to our enthusiastic discourses, quietly ask us to lead them to God are, though they do not know it, demanding holiness in us. I fear they may find everything else but that. The harnessing of modern publicity and know-how to reforming zeal is a potent cause of deception. Saints were required in the past to renew the Church. We suppose we can get by as spiritual operators.” (Charles Davis, “A Hidden God”, America, January 29, 1966, 173)
The “good news” remains little more than a theoretical construct until it is enfleshed. Each of us is called to be Christ in the world. Let Christ be present through you. That is holiness.