SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
The consolation and the mercy of God constitute the central theme of today’s liturgy. In the midst of affliction, sorrow and desperation of Israel resounds the prophetic word that announces from God the end of the exile and the return to Jerusalem: a prophetic oracle that makes manifest the constant divine will of liberating enslaved man. After the time of trial and of the expiation of the people, God makes flower a new beginning in history. The figure of John the Baptist also marks a new beginning in history. In the place of death and temptation, in the desert, “a voice” resounds. It is the word of the Baptist who prepares and anticipates the coming of the Word, an event that will mark the truly new beginning of creation and of all humanity. John, in a certain way, summarises and symbolises the hope and aspirations of Israel and of all humanity.
The first reading (Is 40,1-5.9-11) makes up the introduction to the second part of the book of Isaiah, which comprises Chapters 40-55. These chapters are known with the name of “Second Isaiah” or “Deutero-Isaiah” (Is 40-55), the anonymous prophet who, during the time of the exile, aroused the hope of the people and announced their happy return to the land.
The text that is proclaimed in the liturgy today, like all the work of Deutero-Isaiah, should be placed in a period of the history of Israel marked by anxiety and incertitude, discouragement and desperation. The prophetic oracle makes resound in the midst of the ruins of the disconsolate and hopeless city the foundation of the covenant between God and His people (v. 1: “my people” – “your God”). The history and the dialogue between God and man has not been broken forever. God looks for someone who may convey this message of life and liberation so that the people may be filled with courage and trust. His voice will be heard where there is only crying and lamentation. There is a hastening to announce the end of slavery, pain and punishment: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt expiated; indeed, she has received from the hand of the Lord double for all her sins” (v. 1). The mission of this prophet is continuously described as “consolation” of the people (Is 49,13; 51,3; 51,12.19; 52,9).
The consolation of God is not a simple sentiment of mercy toward those who suffer. When the Bible says that God is consoling His people, this means that He is intervening to transform a situation of humiliation and sorrow. In reality, if God does not console, there is not a consoler. Referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, the author of the book of Lamentations exclaims about the city: “Bitterly she weeps at night… with not one to console her” (Lam 1,2). Only the Word of God can console and make live (Ps 119,50: “My comfort in my affliction is that your promise gives me life”). And only human words, inspired and modelled according to the Word of God can be consoling to other men and women (cf. 2 Cor 1,3-7). Jerusalem, symbol of the people of God, has paid greatly for her errors and infidelity. The exile and destruction have been the fruit of her iniquities. But now a message resounds that permits her to go on living: God calls again His people, “my people” and wants to console them, “feeding them, carrying them in his bosom and leading them like a shepherd his flock” (Is 40,11).
Then the prophet speaks of a “way” that the people will have to travel. A way in the desert that will permit them to go beyond their previous situation –of death and of sin– to a new one –of life and of hope–. God consoles but the people should prepare themselves to accept the gift of liberation by starting to move along this way. The beginning of a new existence is marked by a way that God and the people will have to make together, as in Exodus, where the glory of the Lord went ahead indicating to them the way to follow (Ex 13,21-22; 24,16; 40,34-35). For this reason, the prophet cries out: “Prepare the way of the Lord (in Hebrew: derek yhwh), make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God” (v. 3). The most important way is not the geographical route that leads from Babylon to Jerusalem, but the way of the spirit that the people should travel to return to God. The latter is the true way that should be prepared. The time has come to return to the ways of God that oftentimes do not coincide with our own (Is 55, 10-11). This requires docility and obedience to let ourselves be guided by God who proceeds and illumines us (Is 48, 17: “I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is for your good, and lead you on the way you should go”). Above all, this requires that the mountains and hills of pride and of human omnipotence be brought low, and that the idols gathered on the heights of the hills be destroyed (Jer 13,27). “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and the all mankind shall see it together” (Is 40,5). Precisely when man passes along the way of humility and obedience in faith, he contemplates again the glory of God. In the exile, fruit of sin and infidelity, the sin of Israel had been revealed; on the way back the glory of a God who saves and gives life will be manifested.
The whole text is conceived as a joyful message, as a true “Gospel”. The prophet is like a herald placed on a mountain of Jerusalem. He has anticipated the procession of return of the exiles to present their coming and of the Lord with them to all the land of Israel. He ought to cry out loudly so that all may hear his message of life, salvation and victory: “Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out to the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news… (Is 40,9). In reality, there is only one news: “Here is your God!” (v. 9). The city ruined in the past, the city that has suffered siege and devastation, will change her destiny and prepares herself to welcome the victorious sovereign. God goes on loving His people and wants to give them again life and salvation. The same Lord in person proceeds all of the triumphal court, like a victorious general (v. 10) and like a loving shepherd (v. 11). The words of Jeremiah are fulfilled: “He who scattered Israel, now gathers them together, he guards them as a shepherd his flock” (Jer 31,10).
The second reading (2Pt 3,8-14) centres all its attention on the last and definitive intervention of God in history. The expression “day of the Lord”, taken from the prophetic literature indicates the decisive event in history when God will initiate His reign of justice and peace in a renewed world. The apocalyptic images of destruction want to manifest the newness of the moment. Everything that seems stable and firm in history will give way to what is truly new, to “new heavens and a new earth where, according to his promise, the justice of God will reside” (2Pt 3,13). The day of the Lord is not a day of wrath, nor destruction or ruin, but the beginning of a new creation where the reign of God finally arrives in its fullness.
Today’s Gospel (Mk 1,1-8) is the beginning of the work of Mark that wants to present to the believer the origin and the foundation of the “joyful news”: that of Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God (v. 1). The great theme of the Gospel of Mark, in effect, is the identity of Jesus. He tells it to us in the first words of the book: “Here begins the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark wants to tell the history of Jesus, not as a simple news among others, but as “good news”. Good news is an expression that translates the Greek word which Mark uses: “euagglíon” (Gospel).
In the ancient world, the word “Gospel” indicated primarily a orally proclaimed message. In the Greek world it referred to a joyful and consoling news that filled with joy whoever received it, since it communicated to him an event that could change his life and improve it: the victory of a king over his enemies, the enthronement of a new monarch that would bring peace, etc. For Mark, there is only one Gospel: Jesus Christ. And he desires to proclaim it with his writing. He is convinced that only in Him can life and its meaning be found, and that only He is the true good and life-giving news for humanity. The expression “good news of Jesus”, as it is written in Greek, can mean two things. It can refer to the message, the word of Jesus, which is good news for the one who hears it, but it can also be a way of speaking of Jesus Himself as good news. It is almost better to prefer the second meaning of the expression. Jesus personally is the good news, as Messiah and Son of God, but not as a religious doctrine or a simple theory made of titles and cold notions. It is the announcement of an event that changes history and the life of each person who opens him or herself to Him. The originality of Mark is in using a “story” as a means to express the mystery of the person of Jesus.
However, Mark does not think of an absolute beginning. The “good news” was already announced by the prophets, only that now it finds its definitive fulfilment, and the meaning of what had been proclaimed centuries before appears clearly: the hoped for Messiah in Jerusalem, the Shepherd of Israel who carries His lambs in His arms, the Glory of the Lord whom every man will be able to see, is Jesus of Nazareth. His coming is preceded immediately by a herald, John the Baptist who, like the prophet of the first reading, helps the people to prepare themselves and to go up to meet the Lord who comes. Mark identifies him precisely with the herald of Is 40,3 and with Elijah who returns, of which the prophet Malachi speaks (Mal 3,1).
John the Baptist preaches in “the desert”, a place of decision and of testing. Moved by his fame, those who do not find the answer in Judah and in Jerusalem turn to him. He practices a penitential rite, a “baptism of conversion” (metanoia) (v. 4), that is expressed in the public confession of sins and that seals the reconciliation with God (v. 5). John is on the bank of the Jordan River (v. 5). The place is significant. Whoever turns to him relives the way of Israel that crossed the Jordan before entering in the Promised Land. Only that now they prepare themselves, not to take possession of the land, but to receive the Lord who is about to come.
The voice and the gesture of John speak of another person, one who comes after him and who is “more powerful” (v. 7): Jesus Christ, “the powerful” par excellence, like God (Jer 32,18: “O God, great and mighty, whose name is Lord of hosts”; Dan 9,4: “Lord, great and awesome God”). Before Him, the Baptist confesses: “I am not fit to stoop and untie his sandal straps” (v. 7). This phrase, more than a declaration of humility before Jesus, is a confession of his own incapacity. The text speaks of a right that John does not have. He prepares and purifies the bride to make her worthy of the bridegroom who comes, but he does not possess the juridical power of taking possession of the bride (Dt 25,5-10; Ru 4,7). To take off the sandal of another was, in effect, to occupy his juridical right. He is only the friend of the bridegroom, who rejoices to hear his voice and is called to decrease so that he may increase (Jn 3,27-28). The Messiah who is to come is the only one who can pour out the Spirit, beginning thus a new and definitive creation (Ez 37): “I have baptized you in water; he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit” (v. 8).
Today’s readings are an invitation to discover with joy God who is to come in Christ Jesus. In the midst of the desert of history resounds a word that calls us to what is essential to faith, trust and docility in the Lord. It is necessary to start walking, it is necessary to prepare “the way of the Lord”, by listening to the Word and through sincere conversion. It is necessary to line up at the Jordan to cross it and get in tune with the newness of Christ who comes. Advent invites us to take up a way that coincides with the way of solidarity with those who suffer and are despised, a pilgrimage of faith and hope that announces a new world.