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DECEMBER 4, 2011: SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Readings: 

Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
II Peter 3:8-14
Mark 1:1-8

Though we're separated by thousands of years, the sacred authors and I share a common problem. How do we begin our writings? I often spend more time developing my opening paragraph than I do on the rest of the commentary. Those first lines not only set the theme for the article, they must also motivate the reader to continue reading.

Two of today's three readings provide us with their authors' opening lines. Lots of thought went into them.

The disciples of Deutero-Isaiah who ordered the prophet's Isaiah 40-55 oracles were extremely careful to begin their collection by summarizing the message their martyred mentor had so courageously delivered. Though the prophet constantly spoke about his people's liberation from exile, his promise of freedom was intimately tied to a new image of Yahweh. It was one thing to say God will bring the captive Jews back to the Promised Land; it was something else to paint a picture of the God who was about to accomplish this feat.

Accustomed to other prophets and religious leaders labeling their exile a just punishment from the hands of a vengeful God, the beaten-down Jews were amazed at Deutero-Isaiah's first words. He insists they tear up that old picture of Yahweh. "Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated. Indeed, she has received from the hand of Yahweh double for all her sins." Yahweh will lead them out of exile "... like a shepherd (feeding) his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care."

Liberation from Babylon will not only force Israelites to reflect more deeply on their ancestors' Exodus from Egypt, it will also make them reflect on those loving characteristics of Yahweh which they might never before have noticed. Different actions of God always expose different dimensions of God.

Mark operates from the same premise. He even integrates part of Deutero-Isaiah's initial oracle into his introduction. His very first line tells us the new direction God is charting for God's people: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Christ the Son of God." Though people expected God to send a Messiah (a Christ), no one expected this Christ to be God. Mark begins by reminding us that those who accept Jesus saving them must also accept the new image of God which Jesus conveys.

This seems to be why Mark starts his gospel on a note of anticipation. As in the well-known song from West Side Story, something big is going to happen. It's just around the corner! "One mightier than I is coming after me," the Baptizer promises. "I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

The evangelist is convinced that only those who anticipate God working in their lives in new ways will recognize and accept the new ways when they arrive. Christians are constantly expected to anticipate the new.

Its here that today's II Peter pericope comes into play. That for which we're waiting doesn't always happen as fast as we anticipate it to happen. Writing almost a hundred years after Jesus' death and resurrection, our unknown author is not only trying to keep alive the hope that Jesus' Parousia will eventually arrive, he's also trying to tell his community what they're to do during this time of anticipation. They're to conduct themselves in "holiness and devotion," to be "found without spot or blemish..."

Because we're God's followers, our sacred authors expect us to zero in on what God wants us to do day by day, all the while looking beyond this day to that new world God is helping us create by our everyday actions.