BY RORY COONEY
DIRECTORY, LITURGY AND MUSIC
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)
Today we heard the first verse -the title – of the Gospel According to Saint Mark, which we will hear on most of theSundays for the next year. It sounds ordinary enough, but in fact it is extraordinary. In its time, it was an act of sedition.
In the year 9 BCE, the Greeks created a new calendar based on the birthday of Augustus Caesar, calling him “asavior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things.” This calendar wasdiscovered in Priene, Turkey, but what was remarkable about it for us who read Mark’s gospel is that the stoneinscription called “the birthday of the god Augustus … the beginning of the good tidings (evangelion, ‘gospel’) for theworld that came by reason of him.” In Roman civil religion, the word “gospel” was used to describe news of avictory that brought peace, and so the willing subjects of that kings would be granted salvation from destruction.When Mark uses precisely the same words eighty years or so later to describe his narrative about Jesus, he is directlychallenging the divine successor to Augustus who is sitting on the imperial throne in Rome. The emperor Titus, sonof Vespasian, had recently destroyed the city of Jerusalem and razed Herod’s Temple after a three-yearscorched-earth siege begun by his father, the previous emperor.
Immediately after this opening salvo, we meet John the Baptist in the Judean wilderness, and just a few verses later,we will meet Jesus at the Jordan in Galilee, coming to John for baptism. Our translation of the Greek says Johnpreached “a baptism of repentance,” but the Greek adjective, metanoias, refers to something deeper: a completechange of orientation, literally, “turning around.” It suggests re-orienting our relationship to the God of Jesus, ratherthan toward the other gods who, like Augustus, Vespasian, and Titus, claim that peace must be achieved throughvictory in war, and maintained through the presence of armed legions.
John says that Jesus was going to baptize with fire, but that was John’s idea of a messiah, not Jesus’s. The destructionof one’s enemies, forcing our will upon others, using threats to gain control of others, those are not the tools of reignof God. Jesus is going to show us a different way: release from bondage (exorcism), healing, invitation, andleadership by service. His plan for “conquest” is to send his disciples out two by two. When he comes face to facewith civil and religious authorities and their capital charges, he offers no resistance to the violence they inflict on him.
Combine that opening verse with the original strange ending of Mark (17:8), in which the women, exhorted by theangel at the empty tomb to go tell the disciples to go to Galilee and await Jesus, “went away and said nothing toanyone, because they were afraid.” We are in for a short, strange story. One that isn’t complete yet, perhaps, and inthe writing of which we are invited to participate.
To get from where we are to where we need to be, this Advent, we need to hear John and turn our lives around. Weneed to walk into the Jordan and remember the God to whom we belong, the God who called his people across theJordan into freedom after the Exodus. After another two thousand years, domination systems still only producemisery, inequality, and bloodshed. Let’s not keep doing what isn’t working. There’s a new gospel and a newregime. Let’s try justice and peace for everybody this time, in every decision we make. The gospel has a beginning:it needs a new ending. Let’s start writing it with our lives.