First Reading Isaiah 40:1–5, 9–11
Psalm Psalm 85:9–14
Second Reading 2 Peter 3:8–14
Gospel Mark 1:1–8
Gospel – Mark 1:1–8
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.”
Hearing the Word
Biblical readings of the Advent season call for adequate preparation for the encounter with the Lord. Jesus first came into this world as a little child, born in Bethlehem many years ago, and he will come again in glory at the end of time. This Sunday’s readings, however, remind us that the same Jesus is continually present among his followers and comes into their lives daily. Thus, welcoming the ever-present Lord includes changing or eliminating those obstacles and impediments which prevent him from being a part of the believers’ daily life in the present.
The first reading comes from the opening section of the second part of the Book of Isaiah, where the prophet announces the approaching deliverance of the Jewish people from the Babylonian exile. The prophets saw the great tragedy of Israel’s destruction and exile in 586 BC as a direct result of the godless lives of its leaders and people. Indeed, many saw it as God’s just punishment for the violation of the covenant; many thought that God had abandoned his people for good. Isaiah’s words of comfort offer a different perspective on the entire situation.
The prophet discloses that God entrusted him with the mission summarised in the words, “comfort, O comfort my people”. The entire message the prophet heard contains the threefold command to “comfort”, “speak tenderly”, and “cry to”. These words demonstrate that God is neither a God of vengeance nor a distant God who renounced his people. Instead, Israel’s God remains with those whom he had chosen. Indeed, Isaiah envisions that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” This is a message of hope that the text names “good tidings” or “good news”. This good news aims at making the people aware of God’s continuing and never-ending care and commitment to them: despite the tragedy of the exile God intends to bring his people back home. To make this point even clearer, the prophet uses the image of an attentive shepherd who “will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep”.
Still, in order for this great promise to come true it is necessary to “prepare the way of the Lord” and make straight “a highway for our God”. This needs to be done “in the wilderness” and “in the desert”. These words do not mean that the Israelites must build a road through the desert to march back to their homeland. Rather, the prophet alludes to the Exodus from Egypt when the Israelites journeyed through the desert of Sinai towards the Promised Land. It was in the wilderness of Sinai that the Israelites learned how to trust God unconditionally as he led them across stretches of the barren and hostile wilderness; they had to overcome their fear, abandon illusions, and renounce doubt. Saying “Here is your God!”, Isaiah invites the people in the Babylonian exile to do exactly the same – to get up, lift up their voices, acknowledge that the Lord is present with them, and then begin a long journey back to the homeland they had lost.
The second reading from 2 Peter tackles another issue related to the Lord’s coming. This letter was addressed to a community of believers in Asia Minor who have come under the influence of some teachers who denied that second coming of the Lord (parousia) will ever take place. Since the expected arrival of the risen Lord was evidently delayed and the promised judgement over the evildoers had not as yet materialised, many Christians found their arguments convincing and, as a result, had lost hope that Christ would return; they began to question the truthfulness of the Lord’s promises and his words. Disillusionment and impatience prevented the community members from waiting patiently and faithfully for the Lord. The author of 2 Peter wrote to calm their fears and doubts.
First, he stated that the Lord does not count time as people do, since, for him “one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day”. Thus, they cannot expect the human understanding of what “soon” means to be the same as the Lord’s. Second, the delay of the parousia is motivated by God’s love and forbearance. By postponing Christ’s arrival God is giving ample opportunity for the wrongdoers to repent. Thus, instead of worrying about the apparent delay, the community members ought to make use of the available time to pursue a morally upright life of peace and purity, and to grow in their faith and charity as they wait patiently for the Lord’s return.
The Gospel passage contains the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark which will be read in the course of the current liturgical year. The evangelist begins his Gospel citing the words of the prophet Isaiah applied to the life and mission of John the Baptist. John was the “messenger” and “voice of one crying in the desert”, the voice “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. Just like Isaiah, John was to prepare the people to encounter the coming Messiah. John did this by calling the people to a personal and moral conversion effected by turning away from sin and changing their life focus. Sin is always an obstacle that separates a person from God and “paralyzes” him or her in their relations with others (see the story of Jesus’ healing of a paralytic in Mark 2:1-12). John knew that in order to accept and respond to Jesus the people of Israel had to eliminate such obstacles. With these removed, the people would be open to receive Jesus who would then “baptize them with the Holy Spirit”. Repentance was thus an initial step towards a whole new life under the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. John’s mission was successful as the “people from whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” descended into the waters of the Jordan to receive John’s baptism. Apparently, the people realized the urgency of God’s message and did what was required to welcome Jesus into their world.
Jesus continues to be present and active in human history, particularly in the lives of his followers. Still, today’s readings emphasize that some preparatory steps must be taken to make this presence effective and life-shaping. Isaiah calls for renunciation of fear, delusion, and doubt to effectively experience God’s power and faithful love. The author of 2 Peter argues for patience and trust, even if the Lord’s return does not appear to be a matter of the immediate future. He teaches that Christian life should be one of active waiting in trust and faithfulness to the Lord’s teaching. Mark the evangelist understands that sin poses a major obstacle that needs to be removed before the Lord’s presence can have full effect in a person’s life. Forgiveness of sin, although the work of the Lord himself, also requires human decision and response, as shown by those who came to receive John’s baptism. It is within a person’s power to deal with that which obstructs and frustrates the work of Jesus in their life. Such determined action to “prepare the way for the Lord” defines what the Psalmist called the “fear of the Lord”, which carries with it the promise of salvation, because “surely God’s salvation is at hand for those who fear him.”
Listening to the Word of God
Jesus came to live among us here on earth more than two thousand years ago. From then on, his presence changed only in form – he continues to come to us every day. Often, we do not pay attention to those opportune moments in which the Savior is present with us. This could be because of our inattention which can “exile us” from his presence, as seen in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. We can indeed exile ourselves from our very self and immerse ourselves in the world of the digital media, materialistic pursuits, or dissolute living. To save ourselves from being swallowed up by these and other distractions, we have to keep in mind that every act has its own consequences and be mindful of what can enslave us. For the people of Israel, their violations of the covenant led to the loss of their homeland and the exile. For us, it could lead us to separating ourselves from our families and friends, the break-up of relationships and even death. Let us keep in mind that whenever we exile ourselves from God, we fall into slavery. We might have everything materially, but we still find ourselves unhappy. This sense of unhappiness is not coming from God but from our self-imposed exile.
Focus on Jesus’ abiding presence can keep us free from enslavement, it can free us from subjection to what has already claimed our lives. One way to make this happen is to remove the obstacle of mutual hostility. The present world seems more than ever be riddled and broken by conflicts rooted in ethnicity. Migration and globalization greatly contribute to the development of racist and xenophobic attitudes and movements, even among Christians. Because this or that person does not speak my local language, I refuse to help him or her. Within families, people are not speaking to each other. At our places of work or in school we shout at those who are our subordinates. These are the mountains and valleys we are called to level, to allow Jesus to come into our lives and communities. We are also called to make straight the roads linking parents to children, and children to parents and friends and neighbours. As Christians we have one Lord, the one and only Lord whose coming we commemorate. One of the best ways to welcome him is to make our relationships with others right.
Another way of keeping ourselves open to Jesus’ presence is patience. In the second reading we are encouraged never to lose hope in God and his Son. We have a way of measuring time which is different from God’s. Knowing that, we should never be tempted to lose hope in God because of the difficult situations that we live though or because our expectations are not met. This is true in our personal life, but also when it comes to political and social systems of our world. Being patient in such situations means not allowing ourselves to be affected by the evil they practice, but opposing it by a life of Christian virtue. By our patience we bring about change. We cannot keep on expecting others to be the first to change; we ought to the ones to take the first step. By being proactive in this way and not giving up easily, we allow Jesus to be present in this world through us.
How is my relationship with those around me? Do I build bridges or walls between them and me?
What is it that has enslaved me so much that I cannot live in harmony with the people around me?
Response to God
In my personal prayers, I will recall all those whom I have offended and ask for their pardon, and I will forgive those who have offended me.
Response to your World
I will make it a point to smile, call and chat with friends or relatives from whom I have exiled myself.
As a group, we shall get a chain and place it on the table in the middle of us. We shall recall all our actions or behaviours that enslave us and ask God to break the chain of such attitudes.
Lord Jesus as I prepare to celebrate your birth, help me to be reconciled with you, my friends and family members so that together we may celebrate the joy of our salvation, which you bring to us through your birth. We ask this through Christ our Lord.