‘The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” — “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:1-4)

In those days, before our more modern means of communication, important news of a coming event, such as the visit of some great person, was communicated by means of a herald or town crier who went about proclaiming the event as immanent, and which was then the signal for the people to begin preparing for it … such as by fixing up the roadway by which the great person was to travel, levelling it out and straightening it. (Isaiah 40:3) Mark presents John the Baptist as just such a herald, with the great person before whom he goes ahead as Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1, 7) Mark opens with a quote from the prophet Isaiah, which is actually made up of a quote from Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3) and from the prophet Malachi (Malachi 3:1) and combined with a quote from the Book of Exodus. (Exodus 23:20) In this way Mark has the whole of the Old Testament preparing the way for the Lord by placing John in the line of all the prophets of the Old Testament who called on God’s People to repent. And to underline the point, Mark even presents John, dressed in the manner of Elijah (Mark 1:6), as Malachi’s messenger of God, the one who was to be the last of the prophets sent to call the People to repent and prepare for the Lord’s coming. (Malachi 3:23) Isaiah, of course, was sent to God’s People in Exile, to prepare them for God to once again intervene in history, as he had done previously in the Exodus event when he liberated the People from slavery in Egypt and led them through the desert to the Promised Land, and which Mark alludes to with his references to the ‘wilderness.’ (Mark 1:3-4) What Mark is heralding here is that, in the person of Jesus Christ, God is once again intervening in history to bring about the final, once and-for-all liberation of his People, and for which we need now to prepare.

‘And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the Jordan River.’ (Mark 1:4-5) Here we are told how the People ‘prepared a way for the Lord.’ (Mark 1:3) ‘Repentance’ does not adequately express what the Greek word, ‘metanoia,’ means. For it means ‘a change of mind’ that now sees the world anew. It’s like when once we learnt to see the world as round: though we look out the window and see the horizon level and even across its expanse, never again can we look out and see the earth as flat. So, what ‘change of mind’ is required of us, what is it that we are to ‘see’? Shortly in Mark’s Gospel we are told of Jesus coming into Galilee where he proclaimed the Good News: “The time has come,” he said, “and the Kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.” (Mark 1:15) We are to look on the world and see not any earthly realm, but God’s Kingdom where his Law holds sway. If we see ourselves as citizens of this Kingdom, we need to change our ways so that in all we do we keep God’s Law, as good citizens should. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict Prologue:35)

If we imagine ourselves back in a world that we knew to be flat, and someone comes along and says to us, “The earth is not flat but round,” we would say to such a person, “Don’t be daft; just open your eyes and see: the horizon is flat and even, as far as you can see.” Short of going ‘round’ it ourselves, for us to ‘change our mind’ we would need to accept that this person, who is telling us the world is round, is one who really knows, one whom we can trust. So, too, with the Good News about the Kingdom … and here is a problem. This Jesus who comes proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom is no one special, just one like ourselves. Worse, he is what our Fr Mark would have called a ‘hick,’ for he came from the remote backwoods of Palestine — as the apostle Philip once remarked, when he first heard of Jesus of Nazareth: “From Nazareth! Can anything good come from that place?” (John 1:46) So, that we might be open to hearing the Good News about the Kingdom, we must first put aside our prejudices about this man, Jesus, that we might ‘go and see’ and enter into a relationship we him, as Philip did. (John 1:46) Then, having listen to his words (c.f.: Mark 4:14-20), we will be able to make up our own minds. (C.f.: John 4:42) There with him (c.f.: Mark 3:13-14), as did his first disciples, we will have to wrestle with that question Jesus himself puts to them later in this Gospel: “But you, who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29) When we can say with them, “You are the Christ, the Messiah” (Mark 8:29. C.f.: 1:1), we will begin to appreciate what John the Baptist meant when he said, “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” (Mark 1:7), and know it is true, and we will begin to see the Kingdom opening before our eyes. And we will begin to long for that Holy Spirit to come upon us, that John speaks of. (Mark 1:8) For only then we shall we be able to keep God’s Law, and so be able to enter into this Kingdom. (Ezekiel 36:26-28)


By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO