In contrast to last Sunday’s future-oriented, quasi-cataclysmic and doomsday natured images of Christ’s Second Coming, that being the suggested emphasis at the beginning of the Advent Season, today’s images shift to the character named John the Baptist.
This shift brings our attention closer to Christ’s ‘First Coming’ but viewed from a different perspective. If you notice, Mark’s gospel does not have any of those familiar nativity scenes that we read from Matthew or Luke. Mark does not have an accounting of the shepherds out by night and the rest of those angelic apparitions.
Rather, Mark’s presentation of the Good News, relative to Christ’s First Coming, begins with John the Baptist. This shift to John the Baptist – this “odd fellow”, clad in camel’s hair and feeding on locusts and honey, at times, proves a bit confusing, especially because of our tendency to think of the sequence of events to be happening in one contiguous timeline. Thus, if we regard John the Baptist as “the voice crying in the wilderness”; as the one who was to “prepare the way of the Lord, making his paths straight”, the assumption is that since John was already preaching a baptism of repentance in the river Jordan as an adult then Jesus’ birth was yet to take place. Follow?
That timeline, however, is incorrect. John and Jesus were first cousins and they were only about six months apart. The reference to John the Baptist as “preparing the way of the Lord, making his paths straight” is not to be regarded within the context of the Nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem but within the context of the onset of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
It is to that “First Coming” – when Jesus embarked on his ministry that John the Baptist plays a major role. It is in this frame of mind that we view John as the “voice in the wilderness and to prepare the way of the Lord.” And with this short explanation, I hope those who had at first seemed confused can now put aside that seeming confusing timeline.
John and his preaching for repentance; his being alluded to as the “voice” in the wilderness with the message of urgent preparation, are, indeed, appropriate themes for this season of Advent. For today’s reflection, we’ll be talking about John the Baptist as the embodiment of the “voice crying in the wilderness” (and) “preparing the way of the Lord; making the Lord’s paths straight”.
While this passage is usually thought of as referring to John, the original ones were actually Isaiah’s. The prophet Isaiah’s context was different from that of John’s but they both have similarities in their use of “wilderness” as an appropriate place from which the message is proclaimed.
In today’s Old Testament Reading, Isaiah employs the word “wilderness”. The Hebrew word he uses is “Midvar”. This word appears quite a number of times in the Hebrew Scriptures including the one referring to their forty years of wandering, beginning from their famous Exodus from Egypt leading to their occupation of the Promised Land. It was in the “wilderness” where they faced some of the great challenges and hardships of life just as it summed up their experiences when confronted with their own human weaknesses and the predilection for their faithlessness. “Wilderness” as it appears in Isaiah, also symbolized Israel’s shame as their community went into exile as a consequence of their defeat in the hands of the mighty Babylonian armies. When the exiled community “sat and wept by the rivers of Babylon”, there they were in their “wilderness”. They were suffering their “Midvar”.
In these and in all the other low ebbs of Israel’s life as God’s Chosen people, their relentless prayer was to be freed from such “wilderness” and to be drawn out of their “Midvar”.
On Israel’s return from their Exile, their prayer was answered and they again became a community. God gave them His faithful assurance as His own even when they continued to dishonor and disobeyed Him. And yet God was not through with them. He loved them so much and in the fullness of time, He sent His only begotten Son.
The “First Coming” thus began. With the advent of the Messiah, the Good News of Salvation needs to be proclaimed and Mark saw a wonderful way to tell people about this. Mark, in the beginning of his gospel, quotes the words of Isaiah about someone who would be the “voice crying in the wilderness” and “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths”. In Mark’s gospel, the word “wilderness” reappears. Of course! After all, he was quoting Isaiah. But now, since he is writing in the Greek language, Mark uses the Greek word “Eraymos”.
From our gospel lesson for today we read: “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.’” (Mark 1:2-3)
Isaiah and Mark, centuries apart, now tell us a parallel message. Isaiah says: “The voice of one crying out in the “wilderness” – of crying out in the “Midvar”. Mark, forty years later in the Christian Era, says: “The voice of one crying out in the “wilderness” – of crying in the “Eraymos”. Both Isaiah’s words and John’s refer to their experiences of seeming hopelessness; of wanting to correct things that had gone awry; of hoping to bring relationships back to their former and better state of being.
Unsurprisingly, there are images of “wilderness” which are still very much similar to our contemporary life situations. We have our own individual as well as collective versions of “Midvar” or Eraymos”.
Story No. 1.
On December 3, 1972, that’s thirty-nine years ago, I entered my “Midvar”, my “Wilderness”, my “Eraymos”. That was the day my mother died at age 63. Being the youngest, I was a true-blooded Momma’s Boy, if you know what I mean.
Becoming a priest was not my first dream. It was my Mom’s. I really wanted to be a lawyer. More money, I guess. When mother died, I was in my senior year at seminary and so devastated was I that I thought of quitting. After all, it was Mom’s idea that I be a priest, not mine. And more seriously, I incurred more absences by watching and looking after Mom at the hospital. I was away during the final exams and I lost any interest in pursuing my theological studies.
I was in my “wilderness” nurturing that sense of hopelessness! My father was devastated and so were my two siblings and our relatives. They were all in their “Midvar”.
Story No. 2.
Back in December 7, 1941, at 7:55 a.m. Hawaii time, a Japanese dive-bomber bearing the red symbol of the Rising Sun of Japan on its wings appeared out of the clouds above the island of Oahu. A swarm of three hundred and sixty (360) Japanese warplanes followed, descending on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in a ferocious assault. The surprise attack struck a critical blow against the U.S. Pacific fleet and drew the United States irrevocably into World War II.
As you can imagine, there were thousands whose lives suddenly entered their “wilderness” as they grieved for their lost loved ones, lost in such a treacherous manner. They were in the “Midvar” that both bred hatred against a nation and its people and propelled a country to wage a war of global magnitude.
I am sure that you could recall and name your own versions of “wilderness”; those conditions of despair and perhaps even anger that overwhelmed you.
Your “Midvar” could be a failing health, prompted by that telephone call from your physician wanting to urgently talk to you about that lump on your side. It’s worse than you suspected. Suddenly you find yourself in a different world; one of uncertainty, of indecision and self-pity and the list goes on and on. Or your “Midvar” could be a failed marriage; or a notice of termination from your job that came along with the rest of your Christmas mail. “Midvar” could get ironic.
It is from these wilderness-like situations from which the voices of hope; of reconciliation, of justice, and the voice of the “Good News” are proclaimed: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
While the commercial world tells us that the days leading to Christmas are convenient times to “prepare” for the celebration of Jesus’ Nativity, the Church leans more on the understanding that it is a season meant to prepare for the coming of the reign of God in our lives.
We are being called to prepare for a time when, as the Psalmist would put it, when “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet”; when “righteousness and peace will kiss each other”, when “faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.” (cf Psalm 85:10-11) We are called to “prepare” a world in which the blessings are no longer confined in the hands of the 1%, as those supporting the “Occupy Movement” point out to the public, those in the 99%. We are called to “prepare” a world where tokens of God’s blessings are equitably distributed and received in great thankfulness. In a way, we are enjoined to be the modern day surrogates of John the Baptist, preaching for repentance. We need to tell others that the world we are to “prepare” is a world that truly acknowledges the primacy of God in our lives.
We are but a small speck in the vast and glorious design of Creation. Yet, in our small ways, we could help “prepare” a world in which there are no more lives lost in a senseless war; lives lost in hunger and lives lived in the squalor of poverty; a world that is not bound by fences of suspicion and degradation but fences of love, mercy and understanding.
Such are the examples of the conditions of the world we are called to prepare. It’s a calling that would take a good number of generations to see fulfilled. And perhaps, there will be more “voices in the wilderness” that will issue forth similar invitations to “prepare” a better world.
Today, however, as we continue being engaged in a time of preparation, let our Advent be truly that and may John the Baptist, that troubling prophet by the river Jordan, be our model and our inspiration.
Let us endeavor to fulfill our calling of becoming a “voice in the wilderness” to “prepare for the Lord’s coming”.
Have a blessed Advent.