Commentary on the Readings
2nd Sunday of Advent – Year B – December 10, 2017
Don’t travel along ancient roads, look for new ways
One day the disciples of a rabbi broke in the classroom and, beaming, told the good news: “The Messiah has come.” Unperturbed, the teacher walked to the window, turned around his eyes and looked at the people who, like every morning, moved hurriedly along the street. The poor at the crossroads were begging for alms, the owners shouting at the servants, the children were crying, the blind were led by the hand, the lame struggled to walk. He sat down, invited the students to continue studying, then added, “How could the Messiah come into the world if everything continues as before?”
When will the oracles of the prophets come true? Until when must we wait for “a new heaven and a new earth in which justice reigns” (2 Pt 3:13)?
The story seems to speak against the Lord’s promises; it seems a denial of the Christian faith in Jesus as the Messiah. After thousands of years, “the sound of distress and the voice of weeping” (Is 65:19) have not gone away. The swords are not changed into plowshares or their spears into pruning hooks (Is 2:4).
Doubts about God’s faithfulness to the commitment made to bring forth a new world appear when one forgets that the lovers’ time are not scanned by the clock but by love: an hour passes in an instant and a moment seems to be a lifetime. Those who love are patient and know how to wait. To have Rachel, Jacob served the father-in-law for seven years “which seemed to him only a few days because he loved her so much” (Gn 29:20).
The Lord also expects us to the open wide our heart and, for him, “a thousand years” waiting “is like one day” (2 Pt 3:8).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Lord, make us abandon the old paths, teach us to prepare for you a new way.”
The first years of exile in Babylon were difficult but, as a result, the Israelites adapted to their new condition and many were able to reach even prestigious social positions.
After forty years a prophet arose. He was an enlightened man, a sensitive poet, a brilliant theologian. He attentively followed the political events of his time. He realized that the kingdom of Babylon was crumbling, while the power of Cyrus, king of Persia, was dramatically growing. It was time to awaken in the exiles the hope of slavery’s end and the imminent return to the fatherland. He began to circulate among the captives his insights, his predictions and hopes. So as not to arouse suspicions of the Babylonians authorities, who could accuse him of being a subversive, he made use of an encrypted language. He used images that only the children of his people were able to understand. He announced the upcoming release from the Babylonian slavery referring to the miracles that occurred during the exodus from Egypt and promising even greater prodigies.
Few of the deportees, cultivated his spiritual sensitivity. The majority, seduced by the lure of pagan life, were now part of the new social and religious reality. They had forgotten the glorious past and saw the references to the promises made to Abraham as fairy tales devoid of any value. These exiles, weakened in faith, were unable to grasp the calls of God. They had neither the courage nor the strength to start a new life and were dispersed among the Gentiles. The history of salvation went on without them. The exiles’ greater danger was not its toughness but its seductions and its attractions.
The experience of these prisoners is a warning to one who, like them, adapts himself to a banal and empty life, although convenient, and rejects the persuasions of the Lord to let himself be freed, to look to the future with the eyes of God.
The message of this prophet is therefore addressed to us.
Start with a pressing invitation: “Be comforted my people. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, proclaim to her that her time of bondage is at an end, that her guilt has been paid for. She has received double punishment for all her iniquity” (vv. 1-2). As the thieves who had to pay twice what they had stolen (Ex 22:3), Israel had served her mistakes, she had paid hard, beyond measure, just as it always happens to those who deviate from God’s ways.
In common parlance console is equivalent, in most cases, to speaking words of comfort, to communicate a bit of serenity to one in distressed, but does not change the painful situation that causes pain. The consolation of God cannot be reduced to a tender caress that heartens. God consoles assisting one who is in desperate straits, consoles the miserable by lifting him from the dust (1 Sm 2:8), changing his mourning into dancing and his cry into song of joy (Ps 30:12).
Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Consoler (Jn 14:15) because, with his coming, he renews the face of the earth (Ps 104:30).
God consoles, that is, he sets people free from all bondage, through his word, which is not as fragile as the grass that dries up or withers like the flower that fades, but is alive and eternal (Is 40:6-8) and never returns to God without having done what it wants or accomplish that for which it was sent (Is 55:10-11).
In the second part of the reading (vv. 3-5), an anonymous voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord… every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made low.”
The construction of a road is the condition for God to come to comfort his people.
A vast desert separates Palestine from Mesopotamia. The road that in ancient times connected Babylon to the cities of the Mediterranean coast did not crossed it. It goes up north, skirting it for almost a thousand kilometers. The mysterious voice calls on the exiles to chart a new, spacious and straight road, which allows to easily and quickly reach the destination where the Lord wants to lead them.
The Prophet accumulates a series of images to highlight the commitments of one who wants to make room for God must assume in his own life. He asks to prepare the way to the Lord, not a path that leads a person to God, but one that allows God to reach a person.
The opening of this new road indicates the inner disposition to abandon the old ways, those that God has always refused: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways” (Is 55:7-8). The mountains to level and the valleys to be filled are the impediments to the encounter, communication, mutual respect between peoples of different culture, race, religion. Only by removing these barriers it is possible to prepare the way to the Lord, the way of acceptance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
In a grand vision, in the third part of the reading (vv. 9-11), the prophet describes the return of the exiles in the holy city. Their guide is not a man as it happened during the exodus from Egypt. It is the Lord who preceded them and, as a shepherd leads his sheep “gathers the lambs in his arm and gently leading those that are with young” (v. 11).
The image is moving. It shows God’s tenderness towards the weak. Tender, sweet, patient, he respects the time and spiritual rhythm of each one. He values those who walk quickly but directs his attentions and concerns to one who advances with difficulty, the one who lingers along the way.
When the group of exiles is almost close to the city, there are some who break away from the group and run ahead to announce the “good news” of liberation. Zion is invited by the Prophet to become the harbinger of “good news.” Her message of joy, the “gospel” proclaimed by her is: God will never abandon man, he will always look for him in all the land of bondage, he’ll take him in his arms and will accompany him on the path that leads to freedom.
The early Christians were convinced that the Lord Jesus would soon change the world. However, after a few tens of years, they realized that their hopes were dashed. They began to wonder of the delay and the first doubts arose about God’s faithfulness to his promises. The unbelievers mocked their expectations and asked mockingly, “What has become of his promised coming? Since our fathers in faith died, everything still goes on as it was from the beginning” (2 Pt 3:4).
To these struggling Christians a pastor of souls, who lived in the second half of the first century A.D., addresses a word of encouragement. He explains the reasons for the delay of the coming of the Lord.
The passage proposed to us today takes two of these reasons. First, the way God measures time is different from ours. For him a thousand years are as one day (v. 8) and, if he does not destroy the world, despite its overflow of wickedness, it is because he wants all people to have time to repent and be saved (v. 9). He does hasten the time because he respects man and tries to conquer him to his love. His apparent delay should be seen as a sign of his mercy, his patience and his desire not to lose any of his children.
The author of the letter intends then to clarify a misunderstanding: the coming of the Lord is not to be imagined as his return in glory, to destroy his enemies, as apocalyptic sects preach even today. Behind this concept lies the idea that his first coming in the manger at Bethlehem and his sacrifice on Calvary have been a failure and that he will return to implement, by force, that project he was not able to accomplish with sweetness and with love.
No. All of his comings are glorious. All are revelations of his goodness, justice, desire not to lose any of his creatures.
“This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (v. 1). A verse that seems useless: what was the need to recognize the fact that we are in the first line of the gospel? Instead, it is an introductory sentence carefully composed by Mark. With the first word of his book he wanted to draw his readers’ attention to the beginning of the book of Genesis: “In the beginning when God began to create the heavens and the earth.”
The world, which came out good from the hand of God, was then corrupted. The Israelites, for centuries, were waiting for God to fulfill his promise: “I now create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things will not be remembered” (Is 65:17).
Here it is—the evangelist says—the good news: the new reality props up. You can check it out. The kingdom of God is present in the world.
The Christians of the first century ask, “Where, how and when has the new world in which we entered through faith started? What is our history?”
In A.D. 60, many eyewitnesses were still alive. To answer these question it was decided to write an official text in Rome telling the origin and presenting the contents of the “good news.” Mark was commissioned to draft it. He was a highly respected disciple, traditionally identified with the “son of Mary,” the owner of the house where the first Christian community in Jerusalem used to meet (Acts 12:12-17). He could be that young man who, at the time of Jesus’ capture, was in Gethsemane. He ran away naked when the guards grabbed the sheet he was wrapped in (Mk 14:51).
Mark could have summarized the gospel in dense theological formulas, instead he chose another literary genre, the story.
It all started—he writes—when John was presented in the Judean desert to call his people to conversion. Jesus of Nazareth went to him to be baptized. There was the beginning of our story. There the gospel began.
For many, the gospels are only the four books wherein the events of Jesus’ life were narrated. Yet, the use of calling these texts gospels was introduced several decades after they were written. Before this term did not indicate a book, but simply a joyful news brought by a messenger. The proclamation of victory, lucky events, peace agreements and, above all, the news about the birth, life, the glorious deeds of the Roman emperor were gospels because they aroused hopes of welfare, health, peace. The one who heard of them quivered with joy. In the famous inscription of Priene in Asia Minor, dating from A.D. 9, it says that Augustus’ birthday “was for the world the beginning of the gospels thanks to him.”
When Mark wrote his book, Augustus was already dead for more than fifty years. It is therefore possible to take stock of what happened after him. His legions have put an end to the riots that shook Rome for a century. With him a period of prosperity and peace throughout the Mediterranean basin has begun. Many thought it was the beginning of the golden age. Instead, his birth did not mark for the world the beginning of lasting joyful news. Of the first twelve Caesars, seven died a violent death, Caligula and Nero were certainly not exemplary. When Mark put his hand to his work, the violent civil war that brought to power the Flavian family broke out.
By using the term “gospel,” Mark intends to tell his readers: the gospels of the emperors betrayed the expectations. The joyful news that does not disappoint is another one: it is Jesus, the anointed by of the Lord, Son of God.
After the first verse, the Baptist (vv. 2-4) is introduced in the scene. He was an ascetic who had fixed his abode in the wilderness of Judah. He lived on the fringes of social, political and religious structures. He was the son of a people who for centuries were on the way. They came out of Egypt to enter the Promised Land, later became slaves again in Babylon and brought by God back to Jerusalem. When they thought of being finally free, John the son of Zechariah came to invite them to depart again: He urged them “prepare the way of the Lord, level his paths” (v. 3). These words were already heard. They were those of the anonymous prophet who, in Babylon, nearly six centuries before, encouraged the exiles to return to their land.
Many took in this invitation. They came from Judea and flocked to the Jordan to be baptized. They understood that it was necessary to repeat the experience of the Exodus. They must get back on the path to reach the promised land. The ultimate destination of God’s people is not Palestine.
To which country the Lord wants to lead them? They now still don’t know. They neither know the new Moses who will lead them.
A particular emphasis is given by the evangelist to clothing and frugal food of John. “John was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a leather garment around his waist. His food was locusts and honey” (v. 6). He did not walk around in soft raiment, as those who lived in city’s palaces did. He did not feed on the products of the cultivated fields, but of what was found or wildly grew in the desert. His was a refusal of the corrupt and frivolous society which, having lost the great sense of simple life, had also forgotten his God.
Israel, the bride, had to return to the desert to regain the affection of her Lord who waited for her. “So I am going to allure her, lead her once more into the desert, where I can speak to her tenderly. There she will answer me as in her youth, as when she came out of the land of Egypt” (Hos 2:16-17).
The Baptist had a mission to fulfill: to prepare the way for this encounter of love. The strange clothing that distinguished him was that of the prophets (Zec 13:4) and, in particular, of Elijah who, like John, “wore a mantle of fur with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kgs 1:8). The content of the Baptist’s preaching (vv. 7-8) was the announcement of the coming of one, stronger than he, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit.
To baptize means to immerse. John immersed in the water those who accepted his invitation to conversion. The gesture expressed the final break with the earlier conduct and the decision to live a whole new life.
This baptism, however, was not enough: the water of the Jordan did not communicate life; it only washed the body. They needed another water, water that would enter the person and would act in him as a lifeblood. The Baptist promised it and also indicated he would give it.
The water that submerges kills; but the water that enters, that which is absorbed by plants, animals, man, is life. In these two functions of water two moments of our baptism are recalled. Death to the past is indicated by the immersion in water, the gift of the Spirit is represented by the living water offered by Christ: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink” (Jn 7:38).