(Isaiah 40:1-5.9-11; II Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8)
Imagine for a moment that it is the middle of the first century. We live near Rome and are members of a community of Christians. We have suffered a lot in recent years. First, they persecuted us for having set the city on fire. It was a lie, but the persecution caused the death of many good people. Saints Peter and Paul were martyred during that wave of persecution. Now the authorities threaten to make us renounce our faith.
Then the community scholar – a man named Mark - announces that his book is finished. He calls his work "euangelion" which means “gospel” or “good news.” The word reminds us of what the prophet says in the first reading today. God has directed him to announce to Israel "glad tidings." But in our case the “good news” is Jesus, the Christ, who has been anointed to establish the kingdom of God. He also calls Jesus "the Son of God." But what does this term mean? Isn't every human person a “child of God”? Of course, but Jesus has a closer relationship to God than any other human. He is the one who has suffered death in perfect obedience to God the Father. Also significant, God raised him from the dead. Now we wait for him to save us from the danger in which we find ourselves.
The Gospel read at Mass today comprises the first verses of this Gospel according to Mark. Interestingly, they do not highlight Jesus but John the Baptist. John is so famous that people come from far away to hear him. They wonder if he is the messiah all Israel has waited for. But his message is clear. He is not the expected one but his harbinger. As important as John is, he can't compare to the one who is to come. He is like an alley cat compared to a tiger or a candle compared to the sun.
John says that when he comes, the liberator will baptize people with the Holy Spirit. He will strengthen them with holiness. Fortified with the Spirit, first century Christians can face death without abandoning their faith. The Spirit fortifies us for another purpose. He gives us charity to testify to Jesus with works of love, even on behalf of those who despise us.
As Israel waiting for its deliverer and as the community of Mark waiting for its savior, we today await Jesus. We count on him to alleviate the many afflictions plaguing afflicting our world. Pope Francis has named these problems "the shadows of a closed world." Among others, the pope has listed the return to the prejudices of the past. Many focus more on claiming the superiority of their own race, nation, and religion than seeking the unity of all peoples. The pope also laments the treatment of human persons as disposable. He has in mind indifference to the dire poor, abortion of babies, and abandonment of the elderly.
We don't wait for Jesus just to justify our horror at these things. There is something much bigger at stake. We want him to show the world that the path to peace passes through forgiveness, justice, and the recognition of all as brothers and sisters. This leads us to our hope in Advent: that all peoples collaborate to create a better world.
For a whole year we will be reading from this Gospel according to Mark. We are going to hear the the powerful words of Jesus comfort us in affliction. We are going to see how his disciples, as sometimes we do, misunderstand and fail him. And we are going to witness his giving up everything, even his sense of closeness to the Father, for our sake on the cross. Like all the gospels, the one Mark wrote has its own purpose and beauty. It is worth coming every Sunday this year to hear.