As we begin our preparation for the great Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, our parish is making a special preparation by participating in our own version of the New Testament Challenge. As a parish we are reading the Gospel of Mark.

Today we read those incredible words which begin the Gospel:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God, 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.'”

Here is the beginning of the whole story. St. Mark tells us that we are setting out on a journey of discovering the good news of Jesus Christ. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we are taking the first tentative steps, following what seems to be a clearly marked path, but without entirely knowing where it is leading us. We only know that there is much adventure ahead.

How do we know that? Because suddenly we are told that our beginning isn’t the beginning at all! In fact, this Gospel, this good news, began centuries before in the words of the prophet Isaiah.

In a day and age when people had a better grasp of their Scripture, St. Mark’s audience would have known the quotations and would have placed them immediately in their original context. We need to check footnotes and cross references; but if we do, we will discover that St. Mark has combined two different prophecies. The first part is from the Prophet Malachi (3:1): See, I am sending my messanger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight–indeed he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. The second is, in fact, from Isaiah (40:3). Both of these passages refer to the return of God to His people. Although the Israelites had physically returned from exile, they had not returned spiritually. They were still awaiting the time when God Himself would come to dwell among them once more, when He would vindicate them before the nations. Most of Israel, especially the Pharisees, did not understand what was at stake. They were putting a bigger and bigger fence around the Torah, around the Law of God that made Israel different from all her neighbors and especially different from their pagan Roman overlords.

But Malachi and Isaiah were beginning the true good news for humanity. Since Israel was not able to be the beacon to bring all of humanity to the worship of the true God, then God Himself would come to do it. That is the good news–God was returning to His people. And, St. Mark tells us, He is doing this in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Like a good story-teller, St. Mark does not give away the ending, and yet his whole story is permeated with the cross and the resurrection. We may already know the ending of the story, but watching St. Mark bring to story to its high points, through the winding journey on a spiritual yellow brick road, will help us to get to know Jesus Christ better each day.

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