Are you weary of the Covid-19 pandemic, yearning for the relief a vaccine promises? I am.
When this scourge ends, I can’t wait to hug friends and relatives again, dine together without fear of contagion, travel for vacations and recycle my growing stash of masks.
A similar longing for a better way to live is front and center in the opening lines of today’s Gospel. The common people of Palestine, at the time of John the Baptist, were weary of imperial propaganda and oppression emanating from Rome. They wanted it to end and looked to young, charismatic leaders to restore a life they once had…free of cruel foreigners who worshiped emperors and elite Jewish leaders who compromised themselves in order to avoid Rome’s wrath while burdening the poor with trivial rule upon rule.
In these first lines of Mark’s succinct Gospel, the author uses the propaganda tag of the Roman empire…”gospel”… to shock the reader to attention. Everyone knew the word gospel announced military victories and new rulers. This Gospel is of Jesus Christ the Son of God…not the divine man Caesar.
As we read Mark throughout this new liturgical year, we notice every word, phase and anecdote is charged with meaning. It is the shortest of the four Gospels, but is unique in its descriptions of the role of Jesus and His message to upend the status quo and inaugurate the Reign of God on the earth.
So, as the Gospel begins, the author alerts us to a radical story about to unfold. The writer wants the readers to be as attentive as when the propaganda machine of Rome announces another conquest or another Caesar. It is a news bulletin delivered by a man noticeably outside the establishment, wearing camel hair and a leather belt, living in the wilderness on honey and locust.
John is on serious mission: to get people ready for an amazing transformation of everything familiar. It’s as if he is saying, “Your old, selfish, self-destructive, fearful ways must cease. This man, this ‘anointed leader,’ who I am introducing, will astound you and the world. So change now, and ritualize your change with a baptism of water by me, so you can be open to receive his mind-boggling message. This message is going to be so strong, it will radically change everything. But be warned. This good news at first might scare you. And it may well cost you your life.”
Indeed, it is a subversive message, aimed directly at Caesar and those abusing power in the Jewish social order. As one theologian has stated, these opening lines are “a declaration of war upon the political culture of the empire.”
For us living in the first quarter of the Twenty-first Century, can we permit ourselves to be re-awakened to the power of Jesus coming into our world? As Pope Francis encourages repeatedly, Christians must examine our lives in light of our loyalties. Do I worship idols? Is any project, achievement, possession, financial portfolio, amusement, drug or alcohol, sport or hobby or organization a false god to whom I devote excessive time and attention, neglecting what God asks of me?
Advent can be the time for the self-examination Pope Francis advises. Setting a quiet reflection period each day before Christmas can help us excise our idols and rededicate ourselves to living totally as God wants. This will usher in a joy and energy that withers our weariness…even in the middle of a pandemic. But be warned, it may also cost you your life.
Jim Wayne is a board member of the Passionist Solidarity Network (PSN), and author of The Unfinished Man. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.