Mark 1:1-8
Single-minded Devotion
by Rev. Joseph M. Rampino

Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.  As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
        he will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
        "Prepare the way of the Lord,
        make straight his paths."

John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.  John was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist.  He fed on locusts and wild honey.  And this is what he proclaimed: "One mightier than I is coming after me.  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 second week of Advent draws up before our eyes the vision of John the Baptist, mighty in word and deed, the great forerunner of the Messiah.  Mark's Gospel paints for us an evocative picture of this desert-dwelling man, dressed in camel hair, living on locusts and honey, and proclaiming repentance.  What do these details tell us about John the Baptist, and why is he so important for us, even today?

First, those details of Mark's Gospel, as well as what we have come to learn from other scriptural depictions of John, show us his incredible asceticism and consecration to God.  This figure, the last of the ancient prophets, is entirely set aside for God.  Nothing else matters except knowing and living the will of the Father.  He does not focus his mind or heart on anything worldly, but pours his entire being into the mission of proclaiming God's Messiah.  The fact that he has no home, no extra clothing, no extra food, no other interests or distractions, shows us this perfect and total focus of love.  John is a person distilled into one single feature: "a voice . . .  crying out in the desert."

This single-minded devotion of John tells us something important about the one whose coming he preaches.  We know from how intensely John pours his life into loving and proclaiming the Messiah that this coming figure is outside the normal expectations of humanity. We would be rightly suspicious of such perfect devotion if it were directed toward a mere human, a great teacher, a social activist, a politician or another preacher.  If a person were to give up everything to draw others toward one of these worldly figures, we likely would consider that person to be unreasonable and in need of help.  Far from power, such a would-be prophet's words might bring pity from us, or maybe even flat dismissal.  Yet when John cries out that "One mightier than (him) is coming," people flock to him and treasure everything he says.  Clearly, the one whom he proclaims with such perfect and total consecration is greater than any mere human.  Of course, we now know the truth, that John is the voice proclaiming the eternal Word, God himself come in the flesh.

So why do John's sermons in the desert still have meaning for us today?  We can answer that by looking at what John commands the crowds: "Prepare the way of the Lord."  He calls us today, just as he called the crowds in his own time, to make their hearts and lives ready to receive the promised Savior, whom we know is the Son of God, indeed, God himself.  As we saw earlier, John has already made these preparations in his own life.  He has cleared his heart of everything except desire for God, and so he is uniquely capable of receiving Jesus when he arrives.

We must do the same.  Though God may not be asking us to give away all but one set of clothes, survive on the barest diet, or live far away from all other people, he always is asking us to let go of our attachments to material possessions, to worldly business, to selfish concerns, and above all, to sin.  During this season of Advent, if we respond to the Baptist's call, clearing space for the Lord in our hearts through good confessions, deeper prayer, acts of charity and of penance, we too can become ready to receive Christ when he comes to us, at Christmas, at the end of time, and indeed every day of our lives.  Then, with our greatest desire fulfilled, we can join John, along with all the angels and saints, in giving glory to the Almighty God, who gives such great gifts to those who love him.