• Is 40:1-5, 9-11
• Ps 85:9-10-11-12, 13-14
• 2 Pt 3:8-14
• Mk 1:1-8
“In my beginning is my end.” This line opens “East Coker,” the second section of T.S. Eliot’s poetic masterpiece, Four Quartets. It is followed by a haunting, elegiac reflection on the fragile and transitory nature of life as seen in the cycle of life and death in nature. What is the meaning of our short lives? What hope is man given in this passing world? In whom shall we trust for our salvation?
These questions are always with us, but gain in poignancy during Advent. While the entire liturgical year is ultimately oriented toward all that is heavenly and everlasting, Advent is especially focused on the end of our earthly lives. And, just as Eliot indicated, the beginning points to The End, a fact presented by St. Mark in his direct, urgent style: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”
More than a heading or title, this is a bold proclamation of the good news and joyful tidings of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the inspired declaration that the man Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the Messiah, the anointed one. He has come to deliver his people from sin and death, and to establish the reign of God among men. This announcement is made within the Gospel of Mark by St. Peter, a Jew following in the footsteps of Jesus, (Mk 8:29), and by the centurion, a Gentile standing at the foot of the Cross. In this way, the universal nature of the new covenant is revealed and professed.
But the first announcement in Mark’s Gospel is from the lips of St. John the Baptist, the voice crying out in the desert. John is the last of the Old Testament prophets, but he is “more than a prophet” (Lk. 7:26), a mysterious figure whose strange physical appearance is coupled with a striking message: “I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Ritual cleansing with water was not new to the Jews, but this baptism in the Jordan River was clearly meant to be different. The Jordan River, of course, was significant in its symbolism. The forty years of exodus in the wilderness had ended many hundreds of years earlier when Joshua led the Israelites across the river and into the promised land (Josh. 3). The Messiah, John indicated, is going to call the people to enter through water into a new promised land, a new Zion, a new Jerusalem.
This beginning, rooted in the Old Covenant, provides the grace and forgiveness necessary for the end, what is described by St. Peter as the “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). But this end is already present in the beginning. In the words of Eliot, “Home is where one starts from.” Baptism brings us home; it destroys sin, restores the divine life of God, and makes man a son of God. For “just as the gestation of our first birth took place in water,” remarks the Catechism, “so the water of Baptism truly signifies that our birth into the divine life is given to us in the Holy Spirit” (CCC 694). This is the comfort spoken of by Isaiah in today’s first reading; it is the peace, truth, justice, and salvation desired by the Psalmist.
In listening to the cry of John the Baptist we hear the message of Advent: Prepare the way of the Lord by repenting of sin and embracing the divine life granted in baptism. Go to confession, spend additional time in prayer, and proclaim the Gospel in word and deed. By spending more time in prayer and contemplation, we open the way for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
“We must be still and still moving,” wrote Eliot of this spiritual purification, “Into another intensity/For a further union, a deeper communion.” And then we will recognize more deeply this truth, which concludes “East Coker”: “In my end is my beginning.”
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the December 7, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)