Finally, it begins.
“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God,” is announced as the opening of Mark, the second ‘chapter’ of the one great Gospel. While the newly closed year of Matthew framed the invitation inherent in disruption, Mark moves us into the graced chaos that comes with a surrendered “Yes” to the reality at hand. Like the wilderness Baptist, we are to turn from the littered landscape of the way it was supposed to be, the shattered dreams and lost hopes that represent our bargains with life at the moment of unwanted change, and to turn to God alone.
It’s a baptism of mind/heart-changing repentance for forgiveness of whatever separates us from God, our truest self and right relationship with our fellows. I cannot imagine a community more in need of this sort of forgiveness than the embattled house-church of ancient Rome where the mechanisms of emperor tore at fabric of relationship with unerring cruelty. Do you desire to save yourself and your family from a hideous death in Nero’s circus? Then deny your God and condemn a fellow family of your faith community to the same death. An impossible choice! There is much to forgive in every direction.
The great turning, repentance or change of heart/mind, thrusts us with this community into our own time of wilderness with its solitary and excruciatingly personal work of deep grief. We too are cast into the pathless desert with John, because the interior self must join in the exterior letting go. With John, each follower of the Way ‘appears’ in the wilderness, a stripped down place that demands everything of us, in hope that this movement too expresses the living Christ. Unwanted change and the excruciating choices it brings either embitters us or softens us. In the softening we become permeable to the work of the Spirit in ways that were not possible before.
Rabbi Brant Rosen (Voices in the Wilderness ) notes that “the Hebrew verb ‘to speak’ and the word for ‘wilderness’ share a common root: d-b-r. It suggests an important connection between wilderness and speech – more specifically divine speech.” It was in wilderness that Moses, the people of the Exodus, and Elijah all experience divine revelation:
At first glance, the wilderness might seem to be a wasteland – a “God-forsaken” environment unable to support life. But desert biomes are actually vital, and dynamic ecosystems… the desert invites us to look beyond its seemingly barren surface to discover the life that dwells deep within. We also might regard the wilderness as more symbolic terrain – an existential place far from the “noise” of culture, artifice and ego… to strip away the outer layers of self so we may discover, like the ancient Israelites, the divine word that dwells at the elemental core.
In the end, the journey into the wilderness is one that leads both inward and outward: to the outermost reaches of experience and the innermost reaches of the human soul. These are the places where the voice of God may truly be heard.
In recognition of these outermost and innermost reaches, there is a quality of compassion in Mark’s account of the Baptist that is not present in the other accounts. Both Matthew and Luke depict a John of fiery words, perhaps because these other ‘chapters’ of the one great gospel have their own distinct forms of wrestling to do: in Matthew there is the resistance of ego that has not yet let go and in Luke there is the reconstitution of ego needed to move back into the world. But here, in Mark where we, with the ancient Roman community, already live in the fire of deep suffering, there is only proclamation of the One yet to come with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Together we await what is already here: The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ!