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Epiphany Eighth Sunday

Season of Epiphany

Eighth Sunday: Mark 1:1-11
THE PREACHING OF JOHN AND THE BAPTISM OF JESUS

INTRODUCTION

Mark the Evangelist starts the gospel affirming from the beginning that Jesus came as the Son of God. He proves the divinity of Jesus, starting with John the Baptist’s exceptional experience and witnessing. Isaiah and Malachi had prophesied on the coming of John as the Lord’s messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah. John prepared many people in Judea and Jerusalem to receive the Savior by renewing their lives. They confessed their sins and received baptism from John as a sign of their spiritual renewal. John had the privilege to baptize Jesus. The Baptist experienced the divine intervention of the Holy Spirit on Jesus in the form of a dove and God the Father’s confirmation from above.

BIBLE TEXT

(Mark 1:1) The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The Preaching of John the Baptist

(2) It is written in the book of Isaiah, the prophet: I am sending my messenger ahead of you to prepare the way for you. (3) There is a voice crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, straighten out his paths. (4) And so John the Baptist appeared in the desert, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (5) All the people from the countryside of Judea and the city of Jerusalem went out to John to confess their sins and be baptized by him in the river Jordan. (6) John was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. (7) He preached to the people saying, “After me there comes one who is mightier than I am; I am not worthy to bend down and untie his sandals. (8) I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The Baptism of Jesus

(9) At that time Jesus came from Nazareth, a town of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan (10) And the moment he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened before him and the Spirit coming down on him like a dove. (11) And these words were heard from heaven, “You are my Son, my beloved one, with you I am well pleased.”

INTERPRETATION

(Mark 1:1) The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God 

Mark starts the gospel with the first verse as a title indicating that he wrote the Good News of Jesus who is the Messiah and the Son of God. This gives the readers an idea on what to expect and what his conclusion would be. He then starts the gospel with three events that were preparations for Jesus’ ministry:
1. The preaching of John the Baptist to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah (Mark 1:2-8).
2. The baptism of Jesus with an extraordinary manifestation of the Most Holy Trinity confirming that Jesus is the Christ (Mark 1:9-11).
3. Satan tempting Jesus Christ in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13).

The Son of God
Only some manuscripts give “the Son of God.” It was relevant when Mark completed the gospel because the apostles preached Jesus not as a popular rabbi or a prophet but as the Son of God. Mark followed the teachings of St. Peter, who gave importance to the divinity of Jesus.

The Preaching of John the Baptist

(2) It is written in the book of Isaiah, the prophet: I am sending my messenger ahead of you to prepare the way for you. (3) There is a voice crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, straighten out his paths.

It is written in the book of Isaiah, the prophet.
Though Mark gives reference only to Isaiah, the quote is a combination of the prophesies by Malachi and Isaiah: “Now, I am sending my messenger ahead of me to clear the way.” (Malachi 3:1) and “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isaiah 40:3). Both the prophets mentioned the same. John’s mission was to prepare the people’s heart through repentance to receive the Messiah. Like the end of Babylonian exile, Jesus came to end people’s captivity from the Evil.

I am sending
Though Prophet Malachi prophesied saying “I am sending my messenger,” the usage was a prophetic present. Malachi prophesied around 445 B.C. to 425 B.C. It came into effect only four centuries later.

My messenger ahead of you
John the Baptist was the messenger who came ahead of Jesus. John was six months older than Jesus. His role was to prepare the way for Jesus, the Messiah in people’s hearts by his message of repentance, conversion, and baptism. There were prophesies on John’s birth and role, centuries before he was born. Though he was the son of a priest Zachariah, he did not serve as a priest, but as a prophet of the Lord.

There is a voice crying out in the wilderness.
The wilderness is the desert between Palestine and Babylonia, where John lived and preached. John’s preaching was strong and a cry for conversion because the people’s hearts were like a barren desert producing no spiritual fruit.

Prepare the way of the Lord, straighten out his paths.
John’s role was to remove the obstacle of sin that blocked the Lord’s road to the people’s hearts. The human heart is the new dwelling place of the Lord. It replaces the Herodian Temple where the original Tabernacle, its contents, and divine presence were lacking. Prophet Jeremiah had removed the Tabernacle with its contents from the first Temple before the Babylonians destroyed the Temple. No one could recover the Tabernacle (2 Maccabees 2:4-6). Hence, John came, as prophesied, to prepare the human hearts as the alternative dwelling places of the Lord.

The way of the Lord
The way of the Lord is not the worldly highway that we use for transportation. It is a passage for the holy people to reach the Holy Place of God. “There will be a highway which will be called the Way of Holiness; no one unclean will pass through it, nor will any wicked fool stray into it.” (Isaiah 35:8).

Prepare
Angel Gabriel had explained to Zachariah how John, his son, would prepare the way of the Lord. “He himself will open the way to the Lord with the spirit and power of the Prophet Elijah; he will reconcile fathers and children, and lead the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, in order to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:17). John did this by going “through the whole region bordering the River Jordan, offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:3). He asked people to “produce now the fruits of a true change of heart.” (Luke 3:8).

When some people asked John what to do, he said: “If you have two tunics, give one to the person who has none; and if you have food, do the same.” (Luke 3:11). To the tax collectors he said: “Do not collect more than your fixed rate.” (Luke 3:13). And to the soldiers who came to him he said: “Do not take anything by force or threaten the people by denouncing them falsely. Be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:14). So, John had practical advice to prepare the sinners to receive the Lord. o:p>

Straighten out his paths
There was a practice of widening the highways, cutting down and leveling the hills, filling dips and valleys, straightening the crooked roads, and thus removing all hinderances for a smooth ride where the king would pass. In the spiritual sense, John came to remove the hindrances of sin to clear the path for the everlasting King of Israel. So, John had to level the spiritual pride of the Jewish leaders, straighten the crooked ways of the rulers and the priests, and to exalt the spiritual valleys of the sinners and the Gentiles.

(4) And so John the Baptist appeared in the desert, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John the Baptist appeared in the desert.
Why did John the Baptist select the desert to preach? Tradition says, John’s parents took him at an early age from their little town in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39) to the Judean desert to save his life soon after King Herod ordered to kill all male children under two years of age. The elderly parents died when John was young, and the Essenes community in the Judean desert brought him up. The Essenes were a group of priests who disagreed with the corrupt priests of the Temple and moved from Jerusalem to the wilderness. Their goal was to prepare for the way of the Lord and to concentrate on the study of the Holy Scripture. They were active for about 100 years by the time Jesus started his public ministry. This group might have trained John, though there is no evidence for it.

People considered desert as an ideal place for fasting, prayer, and to be in communion with God. It provided silence, seclusion, non-proximity to material goods, and concentration for prayer. Moses, Prophet Elijah, the Essenes community, John the Baptist, and many early fathers of the church selected desert as a perfect place for communion with God. Jesus also chose the desert to prepare for his public ministry. The synoptic gospels record that, after his baptism, Jesus prayed and fasted for 40 days in the desert. The devil tempted him there at the end of his fasting.

After 30 years of his life in the desert, John appeared as a popular prophet. Some Biblical characters started their public service at age 30. “Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” (Genesis 41:46). The priests served in the Temple from age 30 to 50 (Numbers 4:3). Saul (1 Samuel 13:1) and David (2 Samuel 5:4) became kings at age 30. Ezekiel began his prophesy (Ezekiel 1:1) and Jesus started his public ministry (Luke 3:23) at age 30. John the Baptist was attracting people by his spirit-filled preaching and call for repentance in preparation to receive the Christ.

A baptism of repentance
Baptism of John was not an initiation into any religion or community. It was a physical sign of repentance and a renewal of life, like confession in the Catholic church and some other Christian denominations. It was also to prepare for Jesus’s baptism with the Holy Spirit.

For the forgiveness of sins.
Baptism of John with immersion in water and emergence from it became a foreshadow of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself used this terminology. “I have a baptism to undergo and what anguish I feel until it is over!” (Luke 12:50). This sacrifice of Jesus was to wash away the (original) sin of the world (John 1:29). John’s baptism was for cleansing from actual sins as a preparation for Jesus’ baptism. Unlike baptism in the Holy Spirit that Jesus instituted, John’s baptism could not take away the original sin inherited from the first parents.

(5) All the people from the countryside of Judea and the city of Jerusalem went out to John to confess their sins and be baptized by him in the river Jordan.

As a Nazirite leading a hermit life, John did not go out to towns and villages in search of the people. Instead, crowds came in search of him because he became famous even from the desert. Unlike John, Jesus went out to the people to preach. People also went in search of Jesus for their healing or for their dear ones. Even with no miracle, John could attract an immense crowd from Jerusalem and the whole countryside of Judea. John’s preaching touched the hearts of his listeners such that they confessed their sins. They expressed their willingness to change their lifestyle by receiving baptism in the River Jordan.

River Jordan
The River Jordan is one of the world’s most sacred rivers because of its Biblical background. This river originates from the slopes of Mount Hermon, feeds Lake Hula that is no more, Sea of Galilee, and ends in the Dead Sea. Its length is 230 kilometers or 143 miles. When Abraham and Lot separated, Lot selected the valley of Jordan because it was fertile (Genesis 13:10). The sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were here. The Lord later destroyed those sinful cities (Genesis 19:1-29).

The significance for John to select Jordan for repentance was also because it was the port of entry for the Israelites into the promised land under the leadership of Joshua after the 40 years of their wandering in the desert (Joshua 3:14-17). It was a miraculous crossing with the Ark of the Covenant under the guidance and protection of God. Prophet Elisha told Naaman the Syrian to wash seven times in the Jordan for his healing (2 Kings 5:10). John and the disciples of Jesus used the river for baptism, including Jesus’ baptism by John. Thus, River Jordan became a holy place for spiritual healing and life renewal.

(6) John was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.

Clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.
John the Baptist dressed like a prophet, especially like Elijah, to reveal to his listeners he was the expected Elijah prior to the Messiah. The Bible describes Elijah’s dress: “He wore a hairy garment with a leather belt around his waist.” (2 Kings 1:8). Malachi had prophesied John’s arrival as Elijah four centuries before John’s birth. “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the LORD comes.” (Malachi 3:23-24 / 4:5-6). Angel Gabriel had revealed to Zachariah about John: “He himself will open the way to the Lord with the spirit and power of the Prophet Elijah; he will reconcile fathers and children, and lead the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, in order to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:17). Jesus also witnessed that John was the expected second coming of Elijah. “Elijah has come, and they did not recognize him, but treated him as they pleased.” (Matthew 17:12).

He fed on locusts and wild honey.
Locusts were clean and permitted food for Israelites (Lev. 11:22). They were poor people’s food. Wild honey came from the nectar of wildflowers. People gathered wild honey from the hollows of trees or rocks. That was the food of wanderers in the wilderness. John’s dependence on locusts and wild honey was a sign that John was living like an Essene. Besides revealing the simple food menu of John, Angel Gabriel had revealed that John would abstain from alcohol: “he shall never drink wine or strong drink.” (Luke 1:15)

(7) He preached to the people saying, “After me there comes one who is mightier than I am; I am not worthy to bend down and untie his sandals.”

One mightier than I is coming after me.
John acknowledged that Jesus, though coming after him, was mightier than him. John was aware of the divinity of Jesus. Therefore John cried out: “The one who comes after me ranks ahead of me for he existed before me.” (John 1:15). Jesus, the Word of God, was mightier than John and was ahead of him because, “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was made nothing that was made.” (John 1:1-3).

I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
Tying or loosening the thongs of another’s sandals and carrying them were menial jobs. It was the duty of someone least in the society like a slave or a servant. John esteemed Jesus such that he felt himself unworthy even to stoop before Jesus and loosen the thongs of his sandals. Thus, John acknowledged his humility and Jesus’ nobility.

(8) “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John proclaimed that Jesus’ baptism was far superior to his baptism. John’s baptism with water was a physical cleansing, symbolic of repentance and a renewal of life. However, the baptism that Jesus established is to take away the original sin that was the root cause of all other mishaps in the world. Besides cleansing of the soul from the original sin, Jesus’ baptism fills the people with the Holy Spirit. The apostles received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Christian faithful received the same Holy Spirit through the sacraments of initiation that the apostles, their successors, and representatives performed.

The Baptism of Jesus.

(9) At that time Jesus came from Nazareth, a town of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

After 30 years of private life, Jesus traveled from Nazareth to the Judean part of River Jordan, traveling around 70 miles to start his mission. Though not a sinner, Jesus went to John for baptism. Thus, Jesus who took our sinful flesh appeared humbly in front of John as one among us sinners. There he received baptism from John along with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him and confirmation from his Father. That became the proof for John to confirm that Jesus was the Messiah.

(10) And the moment he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened before him and the Spirit coming down on him like a dove.

On coming up out of the water
The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus after the baptism. According to Luke, “Now, with all the people who came to be baptized, Jesus too was baptized. Then, as he was praying, the heaven opened and the Holy Spirit came down upon him in the bodily form of a dove and a voice was heard from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” (Luke 3:21-22).

He saw.
By specifying “he saw,” the evangelist states that only John the Baptist saw the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus in the form of a dove. Others came to know it only through John’s preaching.

The heavens being torn open
Mark presents the heaven’s opening at the baptism of Jesus as an extraordinary event. The Greek word used for torn open is “schizo.” The English word “scissors” has derived from this word. This image is vivid, like what happened at the death of Jesus on the cross, “And immediately the curtain which enclosed the Temple sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mark 15:38). The other occasions when God opened the heavens were for the destruction of sinners. After Noah built the ark, “the floodgates of the heavens were opened” (Genesis 7:11) to destroy the sinners with a deluge while saving Noah and his family. “Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from heaven,” (Genesis 19:24) to destroy the sinners while saving the life of Lot. However, when John baptized Jesus, the heavens were torn open to reveal the Most Holy Trinity.

The Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.
John experienced the torn open of heaven and the Holy Spirit coming down from heaven. He was convinced that it was not a regular dove that came upon Jesus, but the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The evangelist did not say that the dove flew away afterwards. It descended and remained on him, dissolving the shape of the dove.

Dove has several implications in the Bible:

At the time of creation, “the Spirit of God hovered upon the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2). The Hebrew word for hovering is like a mother bird brooding over her eggs. At the time of Jesus’ baptism, the dove had moved upon the waters of Jordan and descended upon Jesus to start a new spiritual creation through Jesus.

Dove was the symbol of a new creation in the story of Noah. At the end of the flood he sent out from the ark a raven and a dove. Raven, an unclean bird, ate dead bodies and did not return. Dove, a clean bird, flew over the waters and returned to Noah (Genesis 8: 7-12).

Hosea 11:11 compares Israel to a dove.

Dove is a taming bird and a symbol of peace, purity, and love. It is symbolic of innocence. Jesus told his disciples: “Behold, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. You must be clever as snakes and gentle as doves.” (Matthew 10:16).

Dove was a sacred bird in Palestine. The Law allowed it for Temple sacrifice. Those who could not afford to offer sacrificial animals could offer dove as a substitute (Lev 5:7-11).

The Holy Spirit, who is the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, anointed Jesus as the true priest, prophet, and king of the world. The Holy Spirit commissioned Jesus for his mission as he started his public ministry. God had commissioned John the Baptist to introduce Jesus as the Messiah to the people. John had testified Jesus saying: “I myself did not know him but the one who sent me to baptize told me: ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and rest is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” (John 1:33).

(11) And these words were heard from heaven, “You are my Son, my beloved one, with you I am well pleased.”

From the heavens
Genesis 1:1 state: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.” So, there are over one heaven. The Bible presents three heavens:

1. The atmosphere where the birds fly beneath the dome of the sky (Genesis 1:20). The Psalmist refers to this heaven: “Beside them the birds of heaven nest; among the branches they sing.” (104:12).

2. The dome where God set up sources of light including sun, moon, and stars (Genesis 1: 14-18). The Psalmist refers to this heaven saying: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1).

3. The third heaven is the dwelling place of God and is the highest heavens or the heaven of heavens. Moses told the Israelites: “See, the heavens and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it, everything belongs to the LORD, your God.” (Deuteronomy 10:14). St. Paul had an experience of being taken up to the third heaven where he had God’s revelation (2 Cor. 12:1-4). He calls this third heaven also paradise.

A voice
Only Jesus had seen God the Father. “No one has ever seen God, but the only Son made him known, the one who is closest to the heart of the Father.” (John 1: 18). Whereas many had the privilege to listen to the voice of God. Jesus said: “It has been written in the prophets: They shall all be taught by God.” (John 6:45).

The following are some other examples of people who heard the voice of God the Father:

After giving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, “The LORD spoke to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from the heavens.’” (Exodus 20:22). Later Moses told to Israelites: “He let you hear his voice from heaven that he might instruct you; on earth he let you see his blazing fire and from the midst of the fire you heard his words.” (Deuteronomy 4:36).

While the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar was walking on the roof of his royal palace boasting of himself, “a voice came down from heaven, ‘This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you.’” (Daniel 4:28).

St. Peter documented the transfiguration experience he, James, and John had: “when he received glory and honor from God the Father, when from the magnificent glory this most extraordinary word came upon him: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen One.’ We ourselves heard this voice from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1:17-18).

While Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed in distress and asked the Father to glorify His name. “Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it and I will glorify it again.’” (John 12:28).

You are my beloved Son.
Jesus who came down from heaven already knew he was the Son of God and the beloved one of the Father. Then why did the Father make that statement? It was to convince John whom God assigned to introduce Jesus as the Messiah to the public. So, out of conviction, John declared: “Yes, I have seen, and I declare that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:34).

With you I am well pleased.
The Son pleased the Father by completing 30 years of his humble life in the world with the ordinary people, and then he was ready to start his public ministry. The Father assured Jesus through his words and empowered him with His Spirit to go ahead with his mission.

A similar voice came to assure the favorite disciples of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. “Peter was still speaking when a bright cloud covered them in its shadow, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.’” (Matthew 17:5). Thus, John the Baptist at River Jordan, and the disciples Peter, James and John at Mount Tabor witnessed the glory of God coming on Jesus, heard His voice acknowledging Jesus as His beloved Son, and empowering Jesus stating how pleased was the Father with the work of the Son.

MESSAGE

1. Joseph and Mary initiated Jesus to the Jewish community through his circumcision when he was eight days old. His baptism with water and Holy Spirit was the initiation of his redemptive ministry. Through baptism we become Christians, and through confirmation (chrismation) we undertake our mission as disciples of Christ. Let us keep up our baptismal promises to be faithful to God and to give witness to Christ through his church.

2. John the Baptist was the messenger of Jesus’ mission. The apostles and other disciples of Jesus also became his messengers. We have received Jesus’ message through our forefathers. Let us continue to transmit that message to our contemporaries and to the future generations.

3. John’s message involved making straight the paths of the Messiah and repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Though we are all baptized in water and the Holy Spirit, as humans we commit sins. So, let us make use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation to make our souls clean and holy for God to dwell within us.

4. John’s exemplary life and his words out of conviction attracted many people in Judea and Jerusalem to him. However, he publicly expressed his humility, and directed all his listeners and disciples to Jesus. Our lifestyle, humility and Christo-centric approach are important in our Christian witnessing.

5. God glorified Jesus when he humbled himself to line up with the sinners for baptism. Though not a sinner, he appeared as one among us sinners. Let us also find joy in being humble and be at the service of God and his people. Then the heavens will tell us also: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”