December 11, 2013
This is the second of a series of posts on the Christmas story in the gospels. The first one concerned Matthew’s account.
But suppose we take the Christmas story to be the story of Jesus’s beginnings. Though Quakers do not, many Christian denominations celebrate the few weeks prior to Christmas as Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Christ and the beginning of the liturgical year. “Advent” is derived from a Latin word meaning “coming.”
In Matthew, the story of the coming of Christ is a story about the miraculous birth of Jesus, and how, with divine intervention, He and his family evade being killed by political rulers. In Mark, the story of the coming of Christ is the story of Jesus being marked as the Christ through his encounter with John the Baptist.
Any telling of Jesus’s story has to find some way to deal with the question of how we know Jesus is the One, the Christ, the Messiah. He cannot just say it himself, nor can other humans simply say it. He has to show it by some miraculous deed, or there has to be some divine sign.
In Matthew, there are a number of divine signs that tip us off as readers: Mary’s miraculous pregnancy, the angels who speak to Joseph in dreams, the star that draws the wise men from the east and settles over Bethlehem, and the alignment of several story elements with scriptural prophecies. These various signs are mostly seen only by a few at the time they happen: they are seen by Joseph and Mary, for example, and, in a completely inexplicable way, the wise men realize Jesus is special. Herod realizes he should be concerned but there is little indication that he (or “all Jerusalem with him”) should recognize Jesus as the Messiah rather than as just another threat. Later in Matthew, there will have to be other ways to present Jesus to a wider audience as the Christ. In Matthew, one of those ways is Jesus’s encounter with John the Baptist in Chapter 3.
In Mark, it is that encounter with John the Baptist that first serves to announce the coming of Christ, his Advent. It is John who is introduced to us first; Mark notes that his coming is foretold in prophecy (Isaiah 40:3). “John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” As throngs come to him (and we can take these throngs to be an indication of spiritual disquiet in Israel) John tells of another (1:7-8): “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Note that John’s metaphor is a very human one: the greater one who who is coming nevertheless wears sandals that need to be tied. He puts his pants on one leg at a time. John himself does not signal Jesus’s divinity, just his greatness.
Then Jesus appears (“from Nazareth of Galilee”) to be baptized by John, and we get the divine sign. “And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens open and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased” (1:10-11).
Essentially the same story of Jesus’s baptism by John, the heavens opening, the Spirit descending, and God speaking of His Son is told in Matthew (chapter 3), though the Matthew account has a few more details. Luke (chapter 3) also tells the John-Jesus story, again adding more details than Mark, some different from Matthew’s account, and again following a nativity story.
In Matthew and in Luke, the John-Jesus encounter confirms for a wider audience what we as readers have already learned through the nativity story. In Mark, the John-Jesus encounter is the announcement, and this first announcement is very public. In Mark, nothing whatever is said of Jesus’s birth. Was He divine from the beginning? Or did God choose him as his Son as he grew into adulthood and showed promise? From Mark, we just do not know. The Advent is the very public announcement at the time of Jesus’s baptism.
In Mark, the brief account of the encounter with John the Baptist is followed by the Spirit – the same Spirit who descended on Him like a dove – driving Jesus out into the wilderness where he remained for 40 days, was tempted by Satan and ministered to by angels (1:12-14).
Following His time in the wilderness, Jesus begins his ministry, collecting up disciples along the Sea of Galilee (1:16-20). That Simon and Andrew and James and John all followed Jesus “immediately” as he called them (“Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men”) must have struck onlookers as another kind of divine sign. What else could give a man such authority? That is, in Mark’s telling, God’s very public, unexpected announcement of His son is followed by that Son acting confidently in ways that also show His divinity.
[Image: Joachim Patinier, The Baptism of Christ (1515), in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.]