December 10, 2017
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Is 40:1-5, 9-11
A voice cries: “In the desert prepare a way”
Justice and peace shall kiss
2 Pt 3:8-14
We await new heavens and a new earth
A voice cries in the desert: “Prepare a way”
As is fitting for the start of a new church year, today’s readings feature beginnings. The passage from Isaiah begins the second part of that book, from the prophet we know today only as “Second-Isaiah.” The Gospel reading is the opening of Mark. Meanwhile, the reading from I Peter gives us a last look at the apocalyptic themes that preoccupied our attention in the past few weeks.
Today’s first passage inaugurates the exilic writing of Second-Isaiah with an announcement that the Babylonian exile was coming to an end. Isaiah 40-48 in particular is devoted to this theme, with attention given to the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great, who initiated the return. The prophet sees him as an instrument of God operating in history (Isa 45:1-4). Notice how the passage for today begins with a great announcement from the throne of God. Instructions are sent out to prepare for the return. Someone, likely an angelic lieutenant, is sent to initiate a road-building program for the return. Rather than take the long route by way of the fertile crescent, that skirts the Arabian desert, this idealized route cuts straight across—we are in a hurry. Another aide is sent to alert Jerusalem of the impending return: Your God comes with power. One part skipped today is the call of the prophet himself (40:6-8).
Mark’s Gospel begins when Jesus is an adult. No Christmas story here, but rather, John the Baptist. Mark leads off with a biblical quote. “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet…” So he begins, but there is a problem. The quote is a composite, and the first part is not actually from the book of Isaiah. It cites Malachi 3:1: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way.” This is fitting, for as Malachi 3:23 notes, this was viewed as referring to the return of Elijah the prophet, whom you remember did not die but left in a fiery chariot. He was expected to return in the messianic age. Mark is saying that John the Baptist is assuming the role of Elijah.
It is only when we arrive at Mark 1:3, in the second part of the quote, that we come to the book of Isaiah. And we recognize that part of the quote as taken from Second-Isaiah, and our first reading. In its original, we just saw, it refers to the end of the exile, a new day.
But here again we have a problem of sorts. Mark changes the punctuation. Compare these two lines:
“A voice proclaims: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3).
“A voice proclaims in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord” (Mark 1:3).
The words are the same, but arranged differently. In the first, the “way” is in the desert. In the second, the “voice” is in the desert.
Did Mark know what he was doing? Of course he did. This kind of creative quoting of Scripture is a common feature of the Bible. It prompts us to think about the intended message. In this case, it moves the prophecy to something larger than a simple prediction. Instead, it causes us to look for the connection between the two passages, Second-Isaiah and Mark.
Here is one possibility. The prophet was proclaiming a major surprise. Something entirely new was happening in his time—a nation that had been destroyed was coming back to life again. (See, for another example of this, Ezekiel 37:1-14.) Mark wants to say something similar. Something entirely new is happening! The God of surprises, who has surprised us before, is doing it again.
For reflection: How is God a God of surprises?
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.