My Dear People,
The First Verse of the Gospel is a title to the whole work. Like Matthew and John, Mark opens with a reflection of the book of Genesis. The beginning recalls the first likeness of the creation narrative. In Gen 1:1, the good news that Mark is about to tell is a new beginning, a new work of God as original and stupendous as the creation of the universe.
What does the gospel mean here? The Greek word evangelion means “good news” or “joyful tiding.” It often referred to festive public occasions such as a military victory or the coronation of the emperor. An inscription from about 9 BC announces the birthday of Caesar Augustus, stating it is “good news for the world.” For the Old Testament prophets especially Isaiah, the “good news” is not a past event but a promise that God is coming to save his people:
Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings;
Cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: here is your God! (Isa. 40:9)
Mark’s announcement of “the beginning of the good news” is a resounding proclamation that now, in Jesus, the long-promised visitation of God has begun. The gospel is something to be preached and believed. Indeed, so good is this good news that it is worth more than life itself (Mark 8:35; 10:29-300.
What is the content of this Good news? In a word, it is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus meaning, “YAHWEH saves” is the Greek form of Joshua, the name of the ancient leader who led the Israelites into the promised land. Mark gives Jesus two titles—Christ and Son of God—each of which had profound meaning for Jews. Christ, or Messiah, means “anointed,” To declare that Jesus is the Christ is to proclaim that he is the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel, the promised descendant of David who would reestablish the reign of God. Even more, Jesus is the Son of God—a title whose full significance will be unfolded only gradually in the course of Mark’s account. From his very first line, Mark lets readers in on the secret: Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of God in a unique and transcendent way. Yet his readers are invited to share with the disciples their gradual discovery of the mystery of Jesus. Mark will place these two titles, Messiah and Son of God, on the lips of a Jew and a Gentile, respectively, at key points in his narrative. (8:29; 15:39).
Mark launches into a biblical quotation, showing that Jesus’s coming was not out of the blue, but was planned and prepared by God for centuries. For Mark, the Old Testament background is crucial for understanding what God is doing now in Jesus. Although Mark mentions only Isaiah, his quotation also weaves in phrases from Exodus and Malachi (v.2). It was not uncommon to cite only the main theme when combining related biblical texts. In Exodus, in the passage where God tells his people that he is sending an angel to guide them through the desert on their way to the promised land (Exodus 23:20), the Greek angelos (like its Hebrew counterpart, Malakh) means both angel and messenger. Many centuries later, the prophet Malachi prophesied that a messenger would “prepare the way” for God’s sudden coming on the day of the Lord (Mal 3:1). Malachi identified the messenger with the great prophet Elijah, whose reappearance would signal the events of the last days (Mal. 3:23).
Mark quotes from a section of Isaiah often called the “Book of Consolation” because it is filled with words of comfort for God’s people during their exile in Babylon. Isaiah announces in a jubilant voice, crying out that the exile will come to an end and the Lord will prepare the way by removing all obstacles so he can lead his people back through the desert to their homeland (Isa. 40.3).
In the original passage, God was speaking to his people, but Mark has reworked it to portray God speaking to his Son, telling him: “Your coming will be prepared by a forerunner, John the Baptist.” Thus, the Lord whose way is prepared is Jesus! His path will be made straight—that is, the people’s hearts will be made ready for his coming—by the contrition for sin and the repentance that come about through John’s preaching. Mark is saying, in effect: “Israel, here is your God!” God’s promises are being fulfilled, and a new and greater return from exile is about to take place!
It was not by chance that John the Baptist made his appearance in the desert. The desert is a place of deprivation, loneliness, and stripping away of comforts. The Jews would well remember the desert as a place of testing where their ancestors had wandered for forty years after the exodus, often complaining and rebelling against God, discovering God’s severity toward sin but also his patience and merciful love. During this formative period, the Israelites were learning to depend on God to guide them and provide for all their needs—though they never learned that lesson completely. Centuries later, through the prophets, God recalled the desert wanderings as a time of intimacy and even of betrothal to his people (Jer. 2:1-3: Hosea 2:16-17) and promised to restore the purity of the original relationship.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Vincent Clemente