Mark 1:1-8
The Forerunner
by Rev. Steven G. Oetjen

Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.  As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
        he will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
        "Prepare the way of the Lord,
        make straight his paths."

John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.  John was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist.  He fed on locusts and wild honey.  And this is what he proclaimed: "One mightier than I is coming after me.  I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

The forerunner's mission continues todayWhile St. John the Baptist already has completed his earthly course and now enjoys the blessed vision of God, he is made present to us once again through the proclamation of the holy Scriptures in the sacred liturgy.  Though he is in heaven, his voice continues to be heard on earth, a "voice of one crying out in the desert: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'"  He continues to prepare the way of the Lord for us today, as he does every Advent.

John prepares the way of the Lord by proclaiming something very specific.  As today's Gospel tells us, "John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."  Repentance is what makes a highway for the Lord.  It is what fills in every valley and makes low every mountain and hill (Is 40:4).  Repentance of sins is the necessary preparation for acceptance of the Gospel.  If you are not convinced by John, just note that Jesus himself picks up exactly where John left off.  Just six verses after today's Gospel ends, the first chapter of Mark continues: "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel'" (Mk 1:14-15).  One cannot embrace Christ if one still embraces serious sin; one cannot commit to the gospel if one is still committed to a life of sin.  Repent, and believe in the Gospel.

This is not only true of our initial acceptance of the Gospel.  It is also true of every stage of growth.  Deeper union with God is always found alongside deeper conversion.  Detachment from sin and from selfish indulgence of every kind is the highway to deeper union with God, and to the joy that only comes from such love and union.  Father Thomas Dubay, author of "Fire Within," writes, "While the worldly minded dismiss the very idea of detachment, regarding it as repugnant, to the person in love with God it is appealing, attractive, desirable.  Anyone deeply in love instinctively wants to give everything to the beloved, and anything that is an obstacle to union with the loved one is gladly surrendered.  The worldly does not understand detachment because of a failure to understand selfless love."

When we know the lofty gift of the "one mightier" than John who comes after John, then we understand the urgency of repentance - and we should gladly rid ourselves of any obstacle as quickly as possible.

Knowing the necessity of repentance also has implications for the way we evangelize.  There is a false kind of "politeness" in the air these days that makes repentance distasteful, but sheepishness in this regard stifles the joy of the gospel.  For example, we might want to invite someone to get to know Christ, but we also know that for this person to follow Christ, he or she would have to leave behind a relationship, or a lifestyle, or a career path, or certain ideological commitments, or a worldview.  The cost of repentance could be very high.  So, when the right time comes to talk about the issue, we sheepishly skirt around it.  We are almost ashamed of Christ's teaching, as if to say, "I'm sorry that Christ teaches this.  For you to bring your life into harmony with his teaching, you would have to radically change your life.  But you really shouldn't have to do all that just to believe in Christ."  We might not say that in so many words, but our demeanor conveys the sentiment.

Do we really believe that Christ's teaching is true?  Do we really believe that his teaching is good for the person in front of us, and that a radical change in this person's life would be the beginning of unimaginable joy?  Do we believe in the power of grace and that such a radical change is possible?  If not, could it be that we ourselves have not fully committed to repentance and have not yet experienced the joy of union with Christ that only comes through a constant pursuit of deeper conversion?  If we only knew the gift of God (Jn 4:10), we would gladly fill every valley and make low every mountain to receive it.  Repentance is a necessary part of a person's acceptance of Christ, and we need not be embarrassed about that.  We can accompany others on the way of repentance joyfully, not shamefacedly, knowing the joy that awaits them in union with Christ.