This Sunday’s Gospel presents us with the opening of Mark. Unlike Matthew and Luke, who give us infancy narratives, Mark begins with the ministry of John the Baptist and the public ministry of Jesus. The reader immediately learns that John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Mark tells us later that John prepares the way for one who is to come after him. Similarly, the church urges us during Advent to approach the Christmas celebration in a spirit of repentance and watchful preparation for the arrival of Jesus.
The reading from 2 Peter urges us to reflect on what sort of persons we ought to be. In a thoughtful examination we are encouraged to conduct ourselves in holiness and devotion. We could interpret this narrowly and be faithful to our prayers, our attendance at the Eucharist, and other works of piety. If, however, we look more carefully at the kind of repentance preached by John the Baptist we discover that works of piety and prayer are only the beginning of a life transformation. We must also find holiness and devotion in care for our neighbor.
How do we respond to people in need? Can we share our good fortune with those who experience poverty, serious illness or death of a loved one? What kind of changes must we make to genuinely live lives of holiness and devotion. As Isaiah says in the first reading, are we willing to “comfort, give comfort to my people?”
John’s mission not only was to bring people to a change of life, but also to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming. “One mightier than I is coming after me.”
Preparation for any great event is done with great care. Just think how a family arranges its Christmas celebration. They purchase presents, prepare a tree with festive ornaments, plan special foods for the celebrative day and even wear their best clothes. Just as we carefully work out the secular celebrations surrounding the holiday, John’s preaching encourages us to be equally attentive to the arrival of the Savior.
As we engage in the tasks of holiness and devotion, mentioned in 2 Peter, we “await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him . . .”
If, in the next couple of weeks, we can step back from the noise of the secular celebration and prepare ourselves for the one whose sandals we are not worthy to unloosen, John the Baptist’s exhortations will make our Christmas observance more than gifts and elaborate foods. We will celebrate in the full sense of holiness and devotion.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.