Advent is a season of new beginnings. Therefore it is fitting that our gospel reading today be taken from the beginning of the Gospel According to Saint Mark.
Scripture scholars tell us that Saint Mark was the first to write down the story of all that Jesus said and did to save us. It is believed that much of what Saint Mark wrote down was the eyewitness account of what Saint Peter himself saw while he traveled with Jesus.
Not only is Saint Mark the first to give us the story of Jesus’ ministry but he is also the first to give a name to the literary genre he had created. He called it a “gospel” - “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” It is significant that he did not call what he was writing a “history”, a “chronology” or even a “biography” of Jesus. Rather he calls it a “gospel”. The others who would follow him - Matthew, Luke and John - would likewise call their writings a “gospel” as well.
The word “gospel” comes from a Greek word meaning “good news”. In Jesus day, there were obviously no newspapers or television. News traveled slowly because it was brought by word of mouth through messengers who ran from town to town relaying it to the people. If a king were to go off to fight a battle, no one would know for months or even years on end whether or not the war had been won. It was only until the messenger arrived proclaiming the “good news” that the citizens would know that their king had prevailed and that they were safe from invasion.
This is how Saint Mark and all the Christians who followed him came to understand the “good news” about Jesus. It is the proclamation of a great victory! Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has conquered sin and death. He has overcome the kingdom of darkness and inaugurated the Kingdom of God. We can look forward to a future of peace marked by justice because our Savior is victorious.
Throughout the Advent season, we read copiously from the book of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is sometimes called the “gospel of the Old Testament” because of how beautifully he writes about the coming kingdom of peace that God will inaugurate. In today’s first reading, we hear how God will come not to judge, not to enslave the people, not to punish but to give comfort. He comes as a Shepherd gathering up the lost sheep, holding them closely and treating them tenderly.
The good news is that God comes to show mercy to His people. He sees our suffering. He knows how we struggle. He takes note of the burden we carry everyday because of the sinful and unwise choices we have made. He does not come among us to wag His finger at us, to remind us of our bad choices or to add to our burden by punishing us further. Rather He comes to comfort us, to call us back to Himself, to gather us in His arms as a shepherd gathers his sheep.
That is why the story of Jesus’ life is “good news”. While He walked the earth, He sought out sinners with the love of God. He reached out to the sick a hand of healing. To those who suffered, He gave words of comfort and encouragement. He challenged all of us to serve the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned and the sick. His first commandment to us was to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. Leaving no room for doubt, He warned us that we would be judged according to how we treated those who were dependent on our charity.
If Saint Mark was the first to write down this good news, Saint John the Baptist was the first to proclaim it by appearing on the banks of the Jordan River preaching a baptism of repentance. In doing so he shows us what the proper response to this good news is. It is repentance. To embrace this God who comes in power to save us, we must change our lives.
How we will have to change is different for each of us. Some of us will have to be more aware of the sufferings of the people around us just as God is aware of our suffering. Others of us will need to stop judging those who do not appear to be as religious as we are so that we can imitate God’s compassion to the sinner. Many of us will need to let go of prejudices toward those who earn less than we do or have a lower social status so that we can share more of our lives with them and see the face of Jesus in them. It is clear that if the good news is to penetrate our lives and become a reality in our world each of us will have to trade in our stony hearts for loving ones.
The good news is that the Kingdom of God is established in Jesus Christ. However, we know that His victory is not yet complete. As we profess in our creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Saint Peter urges us in today’s second reading, “...we await new heavens and a new earth...Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.” As Saint Mark was the first to write down the gospel, let us, then, be the first to repent of our sins this Advent season. Let us also be the first to proclaim the goodness of God by serving the needy. Finally let us be the first to announce to others this good news of God’s love made visible in Jesus Christ.