by Sheryl Anderson.
It has always struck me as odd that the cycle of the Christian year begins with Advent. Surely, Christmas, or Epiphany, or Easter Day would be a more suitable time? Scholars are divided as to the exact origins of the season of Advent. It appears to be a western invention, but there are also eastern traditions analogous to the western themes associated with the incarnation – the coming of God among us in human form.
There is evidence of the observance of Advent as early as the fourth and fifth centuries in Gaul and Spain, largely through fasting, prayer and meditation. The season was not observed in Rome until the sixth century, but it took some time before (under a variety of influences) Advent gained its dual character of a penitential time of preparation for Christmas and of looking forward to the second coming of Christ. Consequently, although Advent may denote the beginning of the Christian year, when and why this started is shrouded in mystery. This seemed to me to be somewhat ironic, and caused me to reflect on why and how the way we begin ‘things’ matters.
The start of Advent also marks the shift in the Revised Common Lectionary. In 2020 we move from Year A to Year B readings, the most noticeable difference being that the Gospel readings come primarily from Mark. On the second Sunday of Advent the beginning of Mark is the set text.
How the different Gospel writers start their accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is significant. The Gospel of Matthew begins with the words ‘Biblos geneseos Jesou Christou…,’ which can be understood as a bit of pun – ‘The book of the Genesis of Jesus Messiah.’ As the Torah begins with Genesis, then this book will too. The Gospel of Luke begins with a prologue, introducing what follows to, the ‘most excellent Theophilus’. The honorific language here is the language of patronage, so the work that follows is being written for a benefactor and a social superior. The Gospel of John also begins with a prologue. The opening Greek words ‘ἐν ἀρχῇ’ (In the beginning) would be recognisable to all readers of the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures as the opening words of the Book of Genesis. It appears that all these different ‘beginnings’ are significant. If you are going to tell the greatest story ever told, then how you begin matters.
However, beginning Advent with the Gospel of Mark is singularly unhelpful, because none of our Christmas stories come from Mark. There are no references to Jesus’ conception or family background, no birth narratives, no childhood incidents. If we are looking for ways to begin getting into the Christmas spirit, then Mark is useless.
Nevertheless, Mark’s beginning has the same purpose as all the other Gospel writers. He wants to establish right from the start credibility and authority for the account to follow. His opening line – ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ – form the title of the work. The Greek word euangelion, translated as good news or gospel, is perhaps better rendered here as ‘proclamation’. At the time Mark was writing, public proclamations often announced news intended to be understood as of benefit to the populace; a new ruler granting an amnesty, a ruler’s victory in war, the birth of a royal child, and the like. In the Greek version of the Hebrew scripture, the term euangelion referred to God’s intervention on behalf of God’s people. Thus, Mark’s opening words announce ‘the good message of Jesus Messiah,’ and immediately raises for any 1st Century Mediterranean reader the question of Jesus’ authority to claim such a title. In that society public authority was derived from one’s status or honour rating. That rating in turn, was usually dependent upon the standing of one’s family, particularly one’s father. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark provides no genealogy for Jesus; instead he openly identifies Jesus as ‘Son of God,’ giving him both status and authority. In the beginning, the reader may not be entirely convinced by these claims, but hopefully will be sufficiently intrigued to continue with the narrative.
Then Mark does a clever thing. He quotes the Hebrew scriptures, notably selected verses from Malachi 3 and Isaiah 40. In oral societies, honour and esteem is given to writers and speakers who can recite the tradition, especially if they can do so imaginatively and persuasively. Using this device Mark both establishes his own authority and supports his case. By verse four we are hooked.
Most James Bond films begin with the hero engaged in some dramatic battle against impossible odds. In the course of the first five minutes anyone unfamiliar with the genre will learn everything they need to know about the character of the hero. The Gospel of Mark begins a bit like that. We are in for a treat!