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John the Baptist Prepares the Way

In his typically sparse narrative style, Mark launches right into telling “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Unlike his synoptic colleagues – who begin their gospels with nativity stories – Mark locates his first scene on the banks of the Jordan, with the fiery John proclaiming a gospel of repentance, sealed by the sign of baptism.  Mark’s narrative imagery is vivid: to the admiring throng of penitents who have removed their sandals in order to wade into the river, John proclaims he is not worthy even to perform the slave’s gesture of untying the sandal of the holy one who is to come.  An obvious problem (corrected by some later scribes, in textual variants) is that the first part of John’s Old Testament citation (v. 2b) – which Mark attributes to Isaiah – is actually from Malachi 3:1.  The rest of the citation (v. 3) is a rough translation of Isaiah 40:3 (the lectionary’s Old Testament selection for today).  This loose attribution is perhaps faithful to the spirit of the fiery John: he is not the sort of person to be troubled by scholarly documentation!

Mark takes pains to emphasize  John’s subordination to Jesus: he is awaiting one greater than himself, whose sandal he is not worthy to untie. He describes the baptism itself in dramatic terms, with the heavens “torn open,” the Holy Spirit descending “like a dove” and a heavenly voice declaring “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Mark’s use of schizomai, “torn apart,” in v. 10 is significant, because the only other time he uses this word is in 15:38, when the temple veil is torn from top to bottom at Jesus’ death.  The beginning and the end of Jesus’ ministry are thus bracketed by God’s direct intervention: cracking open the boundary between the heavens and the earth, the sacred and the profane.