Thought of the day
Sunday, December 7, 2014

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“Behold, I send my messenger before your face."

Mark begins his Gospel with a quotation “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare thy way... make his paths straight.” Though the evangelist says that he is quoting from Isaiah the entire quotation is not from Isaiah alone. This is a composite quotation taken from two or three Old Testament books. In fact only the second part of the quotation “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” is from Isaiah whereas the first part “Behold, I am sending my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way,” occurs both in Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1. But the context of Mark fits Malachi well. The task of the messenger in Malachi 2:17–3:5 is to prepare the people of Israel for the coming judgement; this is also the task of John and the purpose of his baptism of repentance.
Jesus is the one coming and John the Baptist is the one entrusted with the task of ‘preparing the way of the Lord.’ Baptist’s dress of camel’s hair with a wide, leather belt and his diet of locusts and wild honey which are typical of a wilderness habitat reinforces John’s identity as the “voice crying in the wilderness.” His appearance also associates him with Elijah. According to 2 Kgs 1:8, Elijah is ‘a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.’ Baptist’s food of locusts and wild honey indicate that he is deeply into asceticism.
As far as his mission is concerned John does two things. First, he invites people to his own baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Second, he points to the Greater One who will supersede him and who will administer the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Repentance includes appropriate conduct without which the baptismal act will doubtless be futile. By submitting to John’s baptism one demonstrates a readiness to repent. The goal of John’s baptism is the forgiveness of sins. As the voice of the one crying in the wilderness, he stands as the point between the past promise and the future fulfilment of redemptive history and he represents both an accomplishment and an anticipation of that history. We must also recognize that John’s baptism has a limited scope. For all the good things it did, John’s baptism cannot not confer the Holy Spirit. Only Jesus’ baptism can do that.
Advent and Lent are the two seasons during the liturgical year when we seriously think about the sacrament of reconciliation. One Sunday afternoon in the 1930s in the parish in Germany where he was pastor, Fr Bernard Häring was conducting the weekly religious instruction. This particular Sunday he was talking about Confession, and began by asking the congregation: “What is the most important thing about Confession?” A woman in the front pew immediately answered: “Telling your sins to the priest. That’s why we call it confession.” Fr Häring said, “Confessing your sins is important, but it’s not the most important thing.” A man towards the back called out: “Contrition! Being sorry for your sins! The whole thing doesn’t work without contrition.” Fr Häring said, “That’s right, it doesn’t ‘work’ without contrition; but I don’t think that contrition is the most important thing.” A man over on the left side of church spoke up: “It’s the examination of conscience. Unless you examine your conscience, you don’t know what you have to be sorry for and you don’t know what to confess. Anybody can see that the examination of conscience is the most important thing.” Fr Häring wasn’t satisfied with this answer either. A young woman in the aisle tried: “It’s the penance – giving back the things you stole. Unless you do the penance, it doesn’t count.” The congregation could tell by Fr Häring’s face that he still hadn’t heard the most important thing. An uneasy silence fell over the congregation as people tried to think. In the silence a little girl in the third pew said: “Father, I know what’s most important. It’s what Jesus does!” Fr Haring smiled. She had it right.
Confession, we know, has tremendous therapeutic value, even for lesser sins. This fact is recognized even by secular society. Let us then make use of this sacrament and reap spiritual benefits.
– AK
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