Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lent Reflection: “Prepare the Way of the Lord”

There are several parts to a story that make it worth reading or telling. A good plot, interesting characters, and conflict and resolution are just a few of those characteristics that make a story stimulating. Perhaps the most important component that makes a story worth reading is the opening. Any story worth reading must capture the imagination of its readers through a good beginning.

It is well known among readers of the four canonical Gospels that each begins with a different opening. Matthew and Luke narrate the birth narratives of Jesus, although they do so differently. John speaks about the Word that existed with God, was God, and became flesh. Mark begins with a simple introduction and a quote from the Old Testament. But Mark’s beginning is packed with interesting points that contribute to his whole story about Jesus and that inform and move the readers who hear his version.
Gospel of Mark from Lindisfarne Gospels, British Library

Mark pulls no punches when it comes to the subject matter of his story. He is not writing a history of the Roman world or about any leaders in the Roman world. He is not writing a history of the Jewish people or about just any Jew from the first century. No, Mark is writing about this person called Jesus and specifically about the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Indeed, many scholars have suggested that verse one is Mark’s title to his whole story, signifying the entire purpose of this Gospel.

Following this opening verse, we read in verses 2-3 words from the Old Testament which Mark attributes to the prophet Isaiah. Yet, the statements found here actually comprise a mixture of quotations from the Hebrew Bible. Mark is actually quoting from three different Old Testament passages (Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3), but he clearly credits all of these to Isaiah. 

Why? Was he mistaken? Or, might there be some purpose behind this seeming error?

I think Mark desires that his story of Jesus be understood against the backdrop of themes that are found in Isaiah; specifically the theme of wilderness wandering, especially because the emphasis in Isaiah is on the hope of eschatological salvation in the wilderness.

Isaiah speaks about a new Exodus, which resembles the Exodus from Egypt, and he tells about a messenger of good tidings (Isa. 40:9). Mark has proclaimed that his narrative is about the good news of Jesus, who is God’s messenger of good tidings. Since Mark has introduced his narrative as a “gospel,” and has followed that introduction by naming Isaiah as the source of the quotation to follow, it is likely that he desires his readers to understand this story in light the theme of hope that we find in Isaiah and to see this hope coming to fulfillment in the coming of Jesus. 

It’s as if Mark is using these quotations at this juncture in the story as a way of picking up the story of the past and continuing the hope begun in that former time, in the time of Jesus’ coming. In other words, in the coming of Jesus, God is at work within Mark’s story, fulfilling the promises of the past. By using Isaiah as the backdrop to the story, then, Mark invites us to comprehend God’s presence and activity in the world in Jesus.

This idea is carried forth in the first statement that comes from the Hebrew Bible that Mark quotes, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you.” Clearly it is God who is sending God’s messenger ahead of Jesus, who we know is John the Baptist, who will be introduced in verses 4-8. John’s role is very specific; he is sent by God to “prepare the way of the Lord” a direct quote from Isaiah 40:3.

Stanzione, Massimo,The Preaching of St John the Baptist in the Desert
c. 1634, Museo del Prado, Madrid
When we read verses 2-3, however, there seems to be one path designated, but under two different names. “Your path” refers to Jesus, and the way/path of the Lord retains its original reference to God. So it appears that Mark is setting out a very close connection between Jesus and God, and he is telling us that the Lord, God, is active in the sending of Jesus to obtain the victory promised in the past, specifically by Isaiah. 

As God has been seen as active in sending the messenger, John the Baptist, so God is seen here as promising to enter into the creation to go the way of victory through the path that Jesus will take. The way of the Lord is the way of the Son and the way of God, which God will take in entering the world. 

The “way of the Lord” finds its fulfillment in the “way of Jesus” who goes to the cross to suffer and die for humankind. It is the way of God bringing about victory over God’s enemies through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But the way of Jesus is also our way. We are called to prepare the way of God in our own hearts and lives and in our own word. In doing so, we are called to open ourselves to God by following Jesus’ way of service and self-sacrifice.

As we journey through another Lent, let us allow Mark’s opening to capture our imagination as to how we prepare the way of the Lord by proclaiming to all the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as the fulfillment of God’s promises to God’s creation.