(Adults, begin by reading the Gospel aloud to the child. Alternatively, you could read the first paragraph of the reflection to the child, then read the Gospel, and then continue with the reflection.)
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The reading for this Sunday is from the very beginning of the Gospel of St. Mark. St. Mark does not begin with Jesus's birth. He does not seem to be interested in Jesus as a tiny baby. Instead, he begins by remembering the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’”
Prophets are people who listen not just with their ears, but with their whole being. Their whole selves are turned towards God, and so they hear God speaking to them. The prophet Isaiah hears God sending a messenger out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. "Lord" is a name in the Bible that is saved for God alone. We know, then, that the messenger wants people to prepare the way for God.
St. Mark goes on to tell us,
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
A person in the wilderness! John the baptizer--we call him "John the Baptist"-- is a cousin of Jesus. Could John be the messenger that Isaiah speaks of? St. Mark seems to think he is.
If John the Baptist is the messenger, how is he preparing the way of the Lord? How is he making a straight path for God?
John proclaims a "baptism of repentance." The word "baptism" means a "dunking" in water, and the word "repentance" means "turning back." When we sin, we turn away from God. Like one of the sheep, we wander off on a winding path away from the shepherd, deeper and deeper into the wilderness. Repentance means turning back around to face God. Not only that, but the way back is clear. God can come straight to us.
people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Can you imagine this? A crowd of people splashing into the river, one by one, confessing their sins and getting dunked under the water. What would that be like? Our sins don't make us feel very good; they can make us feel very heavy inside. We don't like people knowing about our sins. It can feel like a good idea to keep them locked away inside of us, hidden from sight. Sins make us feel bad. Sins make us feel unclean. What would it be like to say our sins out loud, and then feel ourselves dunked under the water? Speaking our sins would release them from their hiding spot, and it would feel like the water was washing them away downstream. In the warm sun at the side of the river, we would feel light and fresh and clean.
John the Baptist sees all the people gathered at the river bank, towelling off in the sun. He sees how much they want their sins gone. They are sorry. They want God. Some are laughing with relief, some are smiling quietly, some still have tears running down their faces. Preparing the way of the Lord feels pretty good.
But soon they will be heading home. The water that made them feel so good will be dry and gone. They will sin again. How will they feel then? What will they do?
But John the Baptist knows something more. He knows the best is yet to come. He proclaims,
“The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John the Baptist has a strength that draws people to him, but Jesus has a much greater power. John baptizes with river water, but Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. The water of the Jordan makes people clean on the outside, but the Holy Spirit cleans people inside and out. River water evaporates, but the Holy Spirit lives.
The Holy Spirit is living water; the Holy Spirit brings life. And Jesus is coming to baptize, to dunk people in the Holy Spirit. If they want.
And they do! And we do, too.
With Jesus' power, we are baptized in the Holy Spirit. We live because of him. And when we sin, he calls our name, and we turn back around. We go to the sacrament of Reconciliation, we confess our sins, but we are not dunked in the River Jordan, washing us for a short time only. Instead, our sins are absolutely taken away and we are forgiven. The path of the Lord is made straight; the way for God is made clear. God comes straight to us, wrapping us up, not in a towel to dry off, but in God's great great love.