By Fr. Francis Afu
It is December; that time of the year when we all get very busy in one way or another. Christmas parties and luncheons are beginning to happen. Parents are busy trying to figure out what to place on the dinner table on Christmas day. Children are busy daydreaming of their Christmas gifts. Shops are busy stocking their shelves. The Transportation Industry is busy working out the safest way to transport people in compliance with Covid-19 restrictions. Hospitals are busy organising Christmas shifts for staff. Churches are busy working out Mass times and venues. Amidst this busyness, there is a the likelihood of forgetting Christ, the reason for the season. We become easily distracted by the worldliness that seems to be the order of the day during this time, and the madness, the rush that comes with it, that we literary lose sight of the Christmas story.
Kevin Vost describes this shift of focus from Christ to our concerns and self-preoccupation as the cause of a graver problem: apathy, loneliness, and emptiness. Pope Benedict XVI puts it this way, when Christ is absent in our endeavours, we end up suffering. Turning to the Gospel reading today, Mark 1:1-8 offers us three ways John the Baptist prepared for the First Coming of Christ. Firstly, Mark said John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Mark was speaking to an audience that knew their story. The story of Exodus when God liberated the people of Israel from Egypt and journeyed with them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. But the Promised Land was not the end of Israel’s story.
There was also the expectation of the Messiah. So when Mark said John appeared in the wilderness, his audience might have all heard it is time for the coming of the Messiah. But Mark did not end there. He described who this Messiah is by quoting John the Baptist – ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am.’ According to Mary Healy, the description more powerful than I am, mightier than I, or the Mighty One all refer to God. Thus John was saying the One who is coming after him is God. John made this point to emphasise that he was a creature of God and so were his followers. So the first way John the Baptist prepared for the First Coming of Christ was to acknowledge He was not God. He was only a creature of God.
This is humility, the ground for the possibility of faith in God. John the Baptist is calling us to have faith, to respond to the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom happening right now amid our busyness. Faith is the light that helps us to see and to sense God’s presence in our circumstances. It was this light of faith that helped John to realise he was not even fit even to kneel and undo the strap of Jesus’ sandals. In other words, he was a sinner. John is telling us something more. It is not just about how sinful he was, or we are. John is saying he had encountered the Messiah. When Isaiah had a vision of the Lord in chapter 6:5 of his book, he said, ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…’ John’s words are like Isaiah’s. Such words suggest the persons saying speaking them have had an encounter with God. In other words, John was revealing himself as the man of the in-between time like us.
The man who had seen the Messiah and the man who with the Jews was waiting for His coming. But John and the Jews were not to wait in idleness. They were to acknowledge their sinfulness. ‘I am not fit to undo his sandals’ says tells us Christ’s light had exposed his darkness, which was the darkness of the world. Something was not right. If they did not change their ways, there would not be no change. This applies to us too. We have to mourn what we have lost to sin. It is by so doing that we will find the courage to repent of our sins, and the hope of forgiveness. And this hope is not deceptive, although it will make us restless until we return fully to God. Finally, John’s third preparation was to tell the story of what had happened, his baptism with water which symbolises the first Exodus, and what will happen – the Messiah will baptise you (us) with the Holy Spirit. God will pour His Spirit into our hearts, turning our hearts completely to Himself and allowing us to experience His blessings as we await His Second Coming. This Spirit will animate our world, open new frontiers, and empower us to overcome hatred with love, injustice with God’s justice, and thereby bring about a second Exodus from sin and evil