Years later I still feel the shame. I was visiting a young man in a facility for people with severe brain injuries. He was agitated and eager to walk, so I joined him as he went from room to room and looked in each room as if he were searching for someone. Eventually we came to a big room that was not in use. At the far end a couple of janitors were at work buffing the floor.
“Life isn’t fair,” my four-year-old granddaughter once told me. She offered this judgment as a thoughtful observation, not a whining complaint.
I remember taking genuine pleasure in her remark—not just a delight in her early capacity for philosophical reflection, but also a sense that this particular wisdom could be of blessing in the life ahead of her.
On a wall in Stockholm’s cathedral hangs a huge 17th-century painting of the Last Judgment that depicts the falling bodies of the damned. On a recent visit to that church I gave the painting little more than a glance. A longer look might have found something of beauty or interest, but my reaction just then was to wish that it were not there.
Some years back, I was surprised to hear John called the beginner’s Gospel. Surely the Gospel to begin with was Mark, the shortest and most likely the oldest, or Luke, with all those wonderful stories. John seemed to me a second-semester topic—or a graduate-level course. I saw it as an astonishing theological elaboration and re-presentation of the person of Jesus of Nazareth seen in the other books. The testimony of those sources needed to be heard first, I thought, before John’s majestically self-describing Christ could be understood.There was an additional reason that I thought it a mistake to hand the fourth Gospel over to “baby Christians.” I thought the book dangerous.
John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth. The synoptic Gospels all say so, and the kerygma in Acts connects the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with that baptism. But although Mark seems to find it quite right that Jesus should have been among those who heeded John’s preaching, all the other evangelists seem discomfited by the suggestion that Jesus was somehow a disciple of this other preacher.
Picture the old man with the baby in his arms. He stands chuckling with giddy joy, or perhaps he gazes with streaming tears on his cheeks, or is lost in transfixed wonder. He says that this is enough now, he is ready to die. He has seen salvation and he can depart in peace. But what has he seen, really?
At Christmas even the most Protestant among us can be drawn to the contemplation of Mary. It seems right to recall her humble courage, her receiving and carrying and giving birth, and her joy as she sang of the saving work of God.
Although Mark seems to find it right that Jesus of Nazareth should have been among those who heeded John’s preaching, the three other evangelists appear concerned over the suggestion that Jesus was in some way a disciple of this other preacher.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Like a starter’s pistol, this brief first verse rings out and Mark’s narrative is off and running. We may take the chain of phrases in this verbless sentence simply as a title, the announcement of what follows—the title and then immediately the headlong story.
“Stir up your power O Lord, and come . . .” This traditional prayer for the First Sunday in Advent begins with urgent entreaty. There is no delay for caressing words of prayerful invocation; rude as a wakening alarm, we call for God to get moving. For now, it appears to be the sluggishness of God’s heart that is in question. It is God’s Spirit that first needs stirring to action.