EACH Gospel begins with an account of Jesus’s origins. In Matthew and Luke, this is a genealogy: an account of the physical ancestors of the Christ. In contrast, John begins with the Prologue, which tells us of Jesus’s heavenly origin. Mark chooses a different path, introducing Jesus by means of John the Baptist; we encounter Jesus through the preaching of his forerunner, a prophet who is executed by Herod for his faithful witness to the truth.
By this framing of the story of Jesus with the witness of John the Baptist, Mark is signalling the revolutionary nature of his message. In Christ, something new is bursting into human history. His is a story that will overturn our assumptions about where power and authority are truly located.
It is easy to skip over the opening verse of Mark’s Gospel: “The beginning of the good news [evangelion] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But if Mark is (as is widely thought) the first Gospel writer, this is an extraordinary sentence. For it is Mark who chooses the word “evangelion” to describe the story of Jesus. This choice underlines the subversive nature of the message.
In the world of Mark’s first readers, the word that we translate as “gospel” was used for imperial proclamations. Until Mark borrowed the term and applied it to the story of Jesus, an evangelion meant the announcement of the birth of a new emperor, important events in the emperor’s life, or news of his victories in military battles (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Eerdmans, 2006).
In contrast, Mark applies the term evangelion to the story of a Jewish subject, living under Roman occupation, and crucified by that empire as a common criminal.
This re-evaluation of power and authority is underlined by this week’s Old Testament reading. The author of Deutero-Isaiah is writing to a community living under another occupying power. To the subjects of another earthly empire, his words of comfort declare that sovereignty ultimately lies with the Lord whose glory shall be revealed, not with those who currently dominate and oppress.
As Paul Hanson puts it, “the lesson concerning the transience of all flesh strikes dread in the human heart as does nothing else. Yet there is one group for whom that image contains the possibility of hope, namely, those who suffer under the brutal might of the oppressor” (Paul Hanson, Interpretation Bible Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, Westminster John Knox, 1995).
The hope of Advent is directed both to the activity of Christ within human history and its ultimate consummation. This week’s collect pleads for God’s deliverance here and now from the sin and wickedness which “grievously” hinders us in “running the race that is set before us”.
There is an echo here of Hebrews 12, written to encourage Christians to stand firm against the assaults of both their own sinfulness and of persecution — and to set their present sufferings within the context of the eternal victory of Christ, who “endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12.2).
It is important to recognise that “the sin that clings so closely” has both an individual and a structural dimension, and to acknowledge our own sinfulness, besides working for a more just social order.
This week’s epistle emphasises the eternal dimension of this hope. Christians “wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Peter 3.13). Many Christians have become dismissive of a faith focused on eternity, criticising it as “pie in the sky when we die”.
The spirituals sung by African Americans labouring under slavery tell a different message. Their affirmation that each slave was made in the image of God, and was destined for eternal glory, kept hope and dignity alive in the midst of oppression. It was also the seed-bed for the civil-rights movement. It is when we recognise the eternal dignity of every human being that the claims of earthly empires are put in their place.
This is the explosive potential of the Gospel message. True dominion and authority lie not with Caesar, but with the Crucified One. The hope of an eternal vindication is not an “opium”, distracting us from the pain of earthly injustice and oppression. Rather, it provides the comfort that enables God’s people to stand tall amid the empires of this world. In its power, they can bear witness to his coming Kingdom of justice and of peace.
Canon Angus Ritchie is director of the Centre for Theology and Community, and Priest-in-Charge of St George-in-the-East, London.