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“In my beginning is my end. … In my end is my beginning”

On the Readings for December 6, 2020, the Second Sunday of Advent

Detail from “The Preaching of St John the Baptist” (c. 1690) by Giovanni Battista Gaulli (1639–1709) [Wikipedia Commons]

Readings:
• 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.)


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About Carl E. Olson 1165 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

3 Comments

  1. Yes, our end with God is the beginning for our existence. Eternal happiness. A voice in the desert is now more urgent than ever as the Mystical Body is shepherded toward a different end. Globalist visions of equanimity, a universal wage, a subservient relation of Church to state, a new utopia. Most fear, others remain insouciant. Virtual reality is replacing the real with smartphones, bluetooth connectedness. Religion in Planet Pandemica is falling in line with restrictions. Although thankfully a just rebellion is brewing among priests, and most importantly bishops. And it’s our leadership that owns this dark wilderness of oppression and abeyance of doctrine. Pope Francis’ grand vision of a universal humanist brotherhood Fratelli Tutti the catalyst. Indeed this ‘manifesto’ is being well received by world leadership, including Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab. Schwab? Yes atheist engineer technocrat Schwab. In his book The Great Reset he believes Covid 19 is the least fatal pandemic in history. But due to economic regression and population containment during never ending lockdowns it offers opportunity to reshape the world into a scientific technocracy. Fratelli is a perfect fit. After all it’s Francis who raised global ecology to ethical primacy despite the abortion holocaust, who derides clergy who oppose church Covid shutdowns as silly, and displaced the CDF with Propaganda Fides. And, if it cannot get worse, appointed the frolicking Cardinal Tagle as prefect. Who will save us Lord? Send your Holy Spirit we pray to raise witnesses like John the Baptist.

  2. If I remain in the Roman Catholic Church, an uncertain matter though I have been in it for 60+ years, it will be because of men like Carl Olson, someone I have had occasion to praise before.

    The world around us is full of betrayal, confusion, and corruption. Leaving that world behind and trying to remain in God’s kingdom may be the only hope for us as individuals. I see no hope for the free world or the American Church outside of some dramatic miracle. Although, the persistent faithfulness of a few strong Catholics may be the miracle which God is supplying.

    Many thanks and blessings on you and all who travel with you.

    • I am humbled by your comment, Charles. My wife and I entered the Catholic Church in 1997 for many reasons, which can be distilled to this essential belief: that Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church and remains her Founder, Lord, King, Savior, and Head. There is no denying the difficulties in the Church today; there is also no denying the difficulties in the Church for 2,000 years. Or the fact that the Church has “died” and “risen” many times over the centuries. I tend to think that matters will become even worse in the years to come, but the hope and promises given by the Holy Spirit remain constant and unchanging.

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  3. “In my beginning is my end. … In my end is my beginning” - Catholic Mass Search
  4. “In my beginning is my end. … In my end is my beginning” – On God's Payroll

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