The Sunday before the feast of the Divine Epiphany
The Gospel reading is from Mark, chapter 1:1-8.
Mark the Evangelist begins his gospel by saying: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. “Here, the word ‘Gospel’ does not refer to the book of St Mark, but rather is subject to the Greek (Euangelion) meaning of “good news” or “good tidings” and refers to Christ’s coming and doctrine. In English, the word ‘Gospel’ is from the language of the Saxons, or Old English, and refers to God’s spell, or good spell, i.e., God’s word, or good speech.
The importance of this word in St Mark’s gospel is indicated by the fact that the word ‘Euangelion’ is repeated three times in the first chapter. Mark begins this good news with the mention of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and refers to it again when Jesus came to Galilee “preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God,” and saying: “Repent and believe in the gospel”. (1:14-15).
The common belief among scholars of the Bible, relying on Augustine, is that the gospel of Mark summarises the gospel of Matthew. This idea prevented scholars from discovering the primacy of Mark’s gospel, the shortest gospel of the synoptic gospels. Most bible scholars have acknowledged since the year 1930 that Mark is the oldest Biblical book preserved for us. Mark, who was beginning his book with the first preaching of the Gospel, chose rather to call Jesus Christ, “the Son of God”. Here, he testifies that Christ was the Son of God, not in name only, but by His own proper nature. We are the sons of God, but He is not a son as we are; for He is the very and proper Son, by origin, not by adoption; in truth, not in name; by birth, not by creation.
Each of the four Evangelists chooses a specific and invented beginning. Notice that Mark does not mention anything about the birth of the Lord Jesus, or His childhood and youth. He intentionally begins his gospel directly with the good news of the Baptist and his preaching, “with the promise of repentance to forgive sins”. Mark chooses to start his book with the good news that Jesus Christ is “the Son of God” and he follows it with a prophecy from the Old Testament. In some manuscripts, it is written, “as it is written in the prophets,” while others read “as it is written in Isaiah the prophet”. In fact, this prophecy is a joint prophecy from two prophets: Malachi and Isaiah. The first one from Malachi (1: 3) “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way” And the second prophecy from Isaiah (40:3) “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”.
We might ask why was it only the Prophet Isaiah who was mentioned, with the prophecy only attributed to him and not to both? Perhaps it is because the prophet Isaiah is the greatest and most prolific prophet of all the prophets’ writings, so the two prophecies were placed under the name of the prophet Isaiah. We note from these two prophecies that the first one of (Malachi) refers more to the character of Saint John the Baptist, while the second prophecy from Isaiah indicates more to the nature of his work (his preaching). The prophecy is referring to St John as “my messenger”. In Greek, ‘Angelos’ means ‘angel’ and ‘messenger’. So, in Arabic, this is translated to ‘my angel’ (Malachi). John the Baptist was in fact living an angelic life, a life detached from all earthly concerns, a life of freedom from all passions and care for his earthly life.
He is also likened to an angel because when the Lord is present, He is surrounded and accompanied by angels. Angels surround and proceed Him and announce His arrival. Here we point out that the candle that introduces the Holy Gospel in the small entry during the divine liturgy also called “the little Entrance”, symbolises John the Baptist, who prepared for the coming of the Lord Jesus, as it is written in the prophets.
John the Baptist was “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and all the people of Judea and Jerusalem who would go out to him “were baptised, confessing their sins”. These baptisms did not so much consist of the forgiveness of sins as being a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, as they were a baptism for a future remission, which was to follow through the sanctification of Christ.
St John the Baptist represented the law, he came to baptise for repentance of sins, while Christ came to offer grace. As he himself bodily preceded Christ as his forerunner, so also his baptism was the “prologue” to the Lord’s baptism. John the Baptist baptises with water for “repentance” to prepare for baptism with the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins.
St Gregory the Theologian, in his Oration on the Holy Lights, explains the differences between the baptism of Moses and John, as well as the baptism of Christ. He also talks about two other types of baptisms: the martyrdom and baptism of tears:
“Let us here briefly treat the different kinds of baptism. Moses baptised, but in water, in the cloud and in the sea; but this he did figuratively. John also baptised, not indeed in the rite of the Jews, not solely in water, but also for the remission of sins; yet not in an entirely spiritual manner, for he had not added: ‘in the spirit.’ Jesus baptised, but in the Spirit; and this is perfection. There is also a fourth baptism, which is wrought by martyrdom and blood, in which Christ himself was also baptised, which is far more venerable than the others, in as much as it is not soiled by repeated contagion. There is yet a fifth, but more laborious, by tears; with which David each night bedewed his bed, washing his couch with tears”.
The biblical passage ends with St. John the Baptist indicating the extent of the difference between him and Christ without naming Him; “After me comes He Who is mightier than I.” The more powerful “coming” alludes to the text of Isaiah (40:10), which is very close to the text given by Mark (1: 4): “Behold, the Lord comes with power, and his arm prevails.” John was powerful by the power of God; he was a prophet who was entrusted to him with the gift of directly preparing the people of God for the coming of the Lord. John the Baptist, who is “the greater among those born of women” (Luke 7:28) is not worthy “to stoop down and untie the strap of His sandals”.
Faced with this astonishment and amazement at the Lord’s humility, St John was reluctant to baptise the Lord Jesus in the Jordan River, but the Lord gave him the order saying: “Be not afraid and hesitate not to baptise Me, for I am come to save Adam, the first-formed man”. (The Kontakion of Forefeast).
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” is a permanent and continuous call for repentance to all who believe in the Lord Jesus as Saviour until the end of time.
+ His Eminence, Metropolitan Basilios