Commentary to the 2nd SUNDAY OF ADVENT – YEAR B
THE TEXT BELOW IS THE TRANSCRIPTION OF THE VIDEO COMMENTARY BY FR. FERNANDO ARMELLINI
A good Sunday to everyone. Today we will hear the first page of the Gospel according to Mark. It was written in a dramatic moment for the Christian community of Rome; the persecution of Nero had just ended and the historian Tacitus told us, on a dramatic page, that among the victims of this persecution Peter and Paul have also been martyred.
The disappearance of these two apostles deeply moved this community and led them to reflect and realize that eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus, unfortunately, were disappearing. And this community begun to wonder what will become of the Master's message without the presence of these eyewitnesses ... Can this message remain intact? How to prevent someone from modifying or defacing it? This is why this wounded community decided to collect in a written text the message that the apostles had announced.
For this work they commissioned Mark who was an eminent figure of the community and who had also been Peter's interpreter; therefore, he had dedicated his entire life to the gospel.
Let's hear how Mark begins his narration: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.”
It seems strange this way of starting to write a book: "Beginning of the Good News (Gospel)", as if Mark had the intention of telling us: ‘Now I'm starting to write my book.’ If this is perhaps the meaning of the first word used by Mark, it would really be a trivial way to start, but the term he uses, ?ρχ? - ‘Arché’ in Greek, means ‘beginning’ of the gospel and this term ‘beginning’ was chosen by Mark to remind us of the first word the Bible that begins with: "In the beginning" – it was the beginning of the world, the creation of the world; of that world that lasted a long time in which so many bad things happening and still being committed. A world, that finally, we do not like much, the old world.
With this term ‘beginning’ Mark wants to tell to the Christians of his communities and to us: ‘I am going to tell you how the new world began, that we, the disciples, have chosen as the norm of our life the beatitudes of Jesus of Nazareth. We propose an alternative society to the pagan one in which we live.
It is the beginning, the beginning of the new heavens and a new earth in which justice will dwell forever of which the prophets spoke.’ It is the beginning of the Gospel, not of his book. The Gospel: when we speak of the Gospel we refer to those four books which are those of Matthew, Mark, Luck and John. But these have started to be called 'gospels' only a hundred years later. The first time they were called that is in Justin's ‘Apology’. What, then, is the meaning that Mark gives to the term "gospel"? It does not refer to the book; ε?αγγελ?ου -
‘euangelion’ is a Greek word that has been known since the time of Homer. It means 'beautiful news' - 'happy announcement'. Whoever announced a message that aroused joy was said to ‘announce a gospel.’
There were public gospels, thus, a military victory was a gospel; or a sports victory; there were also gospels of a private nature ... the cure of a disease was beautiful news, a ε?αγγελ?ου. Especially when an emperor ascended to the throne he would present his gospels to the people, his beautiful news. These were the programs that had created wellness, health, peace. And it was gospel, especially, the news related to the life of the emperor. At Abilene, in Asia Minor, an inscription was found that became famous; Ii dates from the year 9 after Christ when Jesus was 16 years old. It states that the year should begin on September 23, and gives the reason: on that day Augustus was born. The day of the birth of the god Augustus was for the world the beginning of the gospels, of the good news and the ‘pax romana’ sung by Virgil: Years of peace, of prosperity throughout the Mediterranean basin and many believed that the golden age had begun.
When Mark wrote his book, Augustus had already dead more than fifty years and the hopes placed on him had already been a complete disappointment. Already in the years of his successor, Tiberius, when Seiano commanded in Rome and Tiberius was semi insane in Capri, life in Rome had become a slalom between poisons and daggers… nothing of a golden age. Of the first twelve Caesars seven and perhaps eight died a violent death. And just when Mark begins his work, the short but violent civil war breaks out that later brought Vespasian to power.
Certainly, it cannot be said that the day of the birth of Augustus was the beginning of the gospels to the world. Mark, taking this term to designate Christian preaching, the coming of Jesus into the world, tries to tell his readers that the gospels of Augustus and the emperors have disappointed us, they have done nothing more than to give continuity to that old world that we simply did not like; they have betrayed expectations.
What then is the happy news that Mark wants to talk to us? It is not information; it is about a person. He presents to us Jesus of Nazareth, the great and wonderful news because whoever hears it, who looks at him, receives the wonderful news of seeing the true face of God and the successful man whose life was love. Whoever really hears this news, whoever sees Jesus of Nazareth, goes crazy with joy; And if he does not go crazy with joy it means that he has not found him, that he was not presented rightly, the news was disfigured.
Mark gives Jesus two titles: 'Christ' and 'Son of God'. In the Old Testament the priests and the king were anointed because they were people who had to be impregnated of a force that did not belong to this world, but came from heaven; a divine force needed to carry out missions that were above human strength. An anointed of the Lord was promised, a Messiah and Mark tell us that this anointed of the Lord is Jesus of Nazareth.
And then he adds: Son of God. In Semitic culture when they say 'son of' rather than generated by, it means that it looks like. A father recognized as his son, the one who was generated by him, at the moment in which he resembled him, when he reproduced his image, the values in which he had believed, when he lived the same life projects as his father. Telling us ‘Jesus the Son of God’ Mark says: when you see Jesus of Nazareth, you contemplate the face of the Father in heaven. And he is a completely different God than what people had imagined. No longer a God who gives orders, who wants to be served, who judges and severely condemns those who do not obey his orders ... a susceptible God ... NO.
The face of God that Jesus reproduces is completely different face. This is the joyous news because the God invented by people was not at all a source of joy but of fear. And here we would expect that Mark begins to tell us about the life of Jesus from his birth; he does not. Matthew and Luck will do it. Mark is only interested in what Jesus said and did during his public life, from the baptism of John to Easter.
The story of Mark is the story of a trip that lasted three years in which Jesus walked the streets of Palestine, visited villages, taught in synagogues, healed the sick, stopped in the squares… What did Jesus want to achieve? Only one thing: to show everyone the true face of God, the God who cares for the poor, who goes home and celebrates with sinners; a face of God that finally fills with joy. It is not the God invented by us. No one who comes across this gospel, which is Jesus of Nazareth, can remain indifferent. One can reject him because he prefers to keep the face of the old god, the executioner god or, on the contrary, you will fall in love with him.
Let's try to ask ourselves what is the gospel that we present because it is up to us to present this great good news that is Jesus. In the New Testament the term 'gospel' is found 76 times; and the verb ‘evangelize’, that is, to give the beautiful news, is found 54 times; it resonates on practically every page. Why, then, so often do those who hear our announcement, our presentation of Jesus of Nazareth are indifferent or don't feel immediately involved? Let us ask ourselves if we have announced the happy news of the unconditional love of God or something invented by us.
He who hears the good news is attracted, but if he does not accept it, we try to ask ourselves why he does not. And now Mark introduces the figure of the Baptist as the other evangelists will do, and presents him with a quote from the Bible.
Let's listen: “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.’”
Mark presents the Baptist with a biblical quote that he attributes to the prophet Isaiah. It is actually a collage of three texts of the Old Testament. The Isaiah of whom the evangelist speaks is the prophet who is in Babylon, along with the deportees; and is called ‘angel’ ?γγελ?ν - ‘anghelos’, in charge of preparing the people to receive the Lord who wanted to free them from the land of slavery and bring them back to the land of their fathers. A very difficult task for this angel because the Israelites had become accustomed to their condition, in fact many had managed to establish themselves very well in pagan land. They had denied their faith and no longer wanted to hear about the patriarchs, the expectation of a messiah ... they lived in that land and had also found themselves very well in the end; they had become pagans.
In this angel who preached to the deportees to Babylon, Mark sees an image of the mission to which the Baptist was also called to carry out, which is to prepare this people to receive the Lord who came to liberate them, to introduce them to the true land of the free. The figure of the Baptist and this angel who lived in Babylon has a very current message for us as well.
Note that the Lord defines well the task of this angel; it does not say that it must prepare the way for the deportees, people who are in bondage, that they go to him. NO. The way must be cleared of what prevents him from entering the life of his people. We all experience slavery at some point in our lives, and if Christ has come to set us free with his gospel, with his word, there was certainly someone who prepared the way for him to enter our hearts.
These people have names: they are angels who, like the prophet of the exile and like the Baptist, prepared the way for the Lord. Let us also ask ourselves: Have I ever been an angel to someone who needed to let Christ into their life?
Now the forerunner enters the scene: “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 baptized by him in the Jordan River.”
John proclaimed a baptism of conversion. The word 'conversion' does not translate the meaning of the Greek term ‘metanoia’, from the verb ‘metanoein’ which implies a change, in fact, a double change, above all a change in the head, in the way of thinking. If one is not willing to put aside our beliefs, our certainties, our habits, what we had always believed and thought, the Lord and his gospel cannot enter our life; we will continue to be slaves if we do not allow ourselves to question the image of God that we have made ourselves and to which we are also very fond of, although it enslaves us. We love this God because he looks like us, thinks like us.
If we don't allow everything to be challenged by the Gospel we will never be free. This is the reason why the Baptist asks for this availability to let the Gospel question our whole way of thinking. The danger is to seek in the Gospel the confirmation of what we have always thought.
The second conversion that is required according to change is that of the behaviour; the Baptist does not specify what it consists of because everyone already knows it; they know well that they are not behaving as the prophets said the Lord wanted to behave. Let us remember the prophet Isaiah when in the first chapter he says: "Seek justice, help the oppressed, do justice to the orphan, defend the cause of the widow ...." The one who accepts to be baptized by John declares his availability for this conversion, for these changes. The decision to end injustices. This is the forgiveness of sins: sweeping away, making evil and injustice disappear.
And what was the response of the people to this request for conversion of the Baptist? The translation says that the entire population of Judea and Jerusalem went out to him. It is not that ‘they came’, the verb that is used ‘?ξεπορε?ετο’ - exeporéueto means: ‘they went out towards him.’ Where did they come from? We must refer to the place to understand the theological message of this geographical indication. The Baptist was in Bethabara, (you can see where it is), beyond the Jordan River, in the eastern part. You can see that it is found in the land of the Moabites, that people that the Israelites had found at the end, when they left Egypt, a people who had put up a lot of resistance in their path.
The Baptist stands at the ford where Joshua had crossed the Jordan River and this Jordan River that you can see, never had an economic importance but always importance as a border between the pagan land and the holy land, the land of Israel; what they thought was the land of the free, the ultimate land. Mark the Evangelist says that the inhabitants of Judea and the inhabitants of Jerusalem all went out and went to the Baptist. They were leaving what they thought was the promised land.
The Baptist called them out ... ‘You have not yet entered the promised land.’ The land of true freedom is another one. The Baptist baptized them, that is, made them pass through the Jordan River and then gave them to the new Moses, that it is Christ who would introduce them into the land of the kingdom of God, of freedom. And 'they confessed their sins.’ It is the first step to take; they recognized their own faults, their own infidelities. As long as one does not realize one's own mistakes, conversion cannot take place, no ‘metanoia’ is possible if one does not realize this reality. The Baptist did not address those responsible for the religious institution but to the people who came to him.
Let's hear how he presents itself and what it says: “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: ‘After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’”
Why is the Evangelist Mark interested in the way the Baptist dressed? He certainly wants to present him as an austere man, who does not run after fashion and designer clothes; his interests were different and the values he cultivated were different. Jesus also alludes to this austere aspect of the Baptist when he asks: 'Who did they go to see in the desert ... to a man dressed in fancy clothes? Those who wear sumptuous robes live in luxury, they are in the king's palaces.'
But this is not the main reason why Mark dwells on the Baptist's dress. He was dressed in camel skin; this was the clothing that distinguished the Old Testament prophets. The prophet Zacharias says that he wore the fur cloak, therefore, he places him among the prophets. More important still is the reference to the leather belt around the waist with which the Baptist is united to the greatest of the prophets, Elijah who is presented in the second book of kings with a leather belt around the waist.
With this detail, Mark wants to respond to those who were waiting for Elijah's return. It was said that he would come to prepare the coming of the Lord by taking the heart of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children towards parents; and it was believed that as long as there was no peace between families, the Lord would not come. With this reference to the clothes of the Baptist Mark he wants to tell his readers: ‘Know that the Elijah you are waiting for is John the Baptist.'
Then the food: grasshoppers and wild honey. Grasshoppers are pure food according to the book of Leviticus, fragrant honey from the desert was highly valued. It does not mean that the Baptist was an ascetic, to do penance. This is not the reason. It only means that the Baptist is in the desert; these were the foods of those who lived in the desert.
The preaching of the Baptist. Mark presents his preaching differently from Matthew and Luke. In Mark we do not find in the Baptist's mouth the threats that we find in Luke and Matthew. The Baptist does not say: ‘The ax is placed at the roots of the trees… the trees that do not bear fruit are cut down and thrown into the fire….' Nor does he attack the Pharisees and Sadducees saying they are a race of vipers trying to escape the impending anger ... none of this in Mark.
The Baptist in Mark simply says, "Someone stronger than me is coming." In what does this force consist and against whom will this force be unleashed? It is that of victory over the evil one, about the evil that exists in the world that seems invincible ... Jesus will also say it. The world is in the hands of the evil one, but now someone stronger than him has arrived. Therefore, it is a reason for hope or even certainty that evil is destined to disappear.
There is a second difference between the Baptist and the one who is to come. It is the baptism that is different. Apparently, the baptisms are similar, but they are completely different. Those of the Baptist are an external ablution. The Jews did many purifications. At Qumram, for example, several times a day the monks would soak in the 'mikveh' (a bath that was an immersion ritual) to purify themselves.
The baptism of the Baptist was not one of the many purifications, it was unique in that it indicated that one renounced to an old life to adhere to a whole new life, but it was an external ablution. This baptism of the Baptist did not produce such a change that the person could start a really new life because it was an external act; it did not give the strength to live a new life. Hence the need for the baptism of Jesus which is a baptism with the Spirit. The difference is precisely that of water; water washes the outside, but when it enters as sap into a plant then this is a force that produces fruit.
The baptism of Jesus is the gift of his Spirit, that inner strength that allows you to live the life of the children of God, therefore, unconditional love. This is what Mark tells us this Sunday, at the beginning of his gospel. Let us prepare ourselves to receive this Spirit that the Lord came to bring into the world.
I wish you all a good Sunday and a good preparation for the advent of the Lord.