At the center of our readings for the second Sunday of Advent is an image of Jerusalem. The Entrance Antiphon says, “O people of Sion” (the temple hill at the center of Jerusalem) “behold, the Lord will come to save the nations, and the Lord will make the glory of his voice heard in the joy of your heart.” The Communion Antiphon again says, “Jerusalem, arise and stand upon the heights, and behold the joy which comes to you from God.” Jerusalem looks toward the Lord who will come.
The Liturgical renewal of Vatican II is remarkable, sometimes dumbfoundingly rich. These two antiphons are ancient, and were part of the readings before the Council. After the Council, the readings themselves changed – though the Gospel continues to bring our attention to John the Baptist – but we enter even more deeply into these antiphons.
The earthly Jerusalem is a strange city. Most cities, like New York, are near the sea and trade routes. Jerusalem is in the mountains, desert mountains, a fortress set apart. Jerusalem is a city in the wilderness, a watchtower.
Our Epistle, from Second Peter, keeps us looking forward, to the Second Coming. We are reminded that on that day, “the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire.” All that will remain is “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (In Revelation, that’s the New Jerusalem.) “Therefore . . . be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him.” Be cleansed so that you can meet your Lord when he comes.
Our Prophet, Isaiah, is more reassuring: instead of threatening the incineration of heaven and earth, he says, “Comfort”: tell Jerusalem that “her guilt is expiated.” But still we are preparing “in the desert . . . the way of the Lord,” preparing for when “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” because “Here comes with power the Lord God.” A watchtower.
The Gospel is John the Baptist, whom Mark calls, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”
A central line of the reading points us to the identity of Jerusalem. I’ll give my own translation, because the point is tricky: “There came out to him the whole Judean territory and all the Jerusalemites.”
Like everything else in this reading, it is a reference to Isaiah and Elijah. Our reading from Isaiah said, “Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God!”
Jerusalem, the city on a hill, is a people looking east. The earthly Jerusalem proclaims salvation to all the nations, beginning with the Judean countryside that surrounds it. “All of Jerusalem,” Mark says, goes out to John the Baptist.
John himself is an image of the Old Testament people. The reading begins, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet” – but then it quotes two of the prophets, Malachi, who says, “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,” and then our reading from Isaiah, “A voice of one crying out in the desert.”
Both passages have prophets telling of a prophet telling of the Lord who comes. Jerusalem is a people looking East, a people of prophecy, a watchtower.
John the Baptist himself proclaims a baptism. In the Greek version of the Old Testament that Mark is quoting, “baptism” is a word derived from the word for the ablutions that are center to Jerusalem’s identity. In the Passover rite in Exodus, for example, “You shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip [bapto] in the blood in the bowl, and strike the lintel and the doorposts with the blood in the bowl.” And on Yom Kippur, “the priest shall dip [bapto] his finger in the blood and sprinkle of the blood seven times before Jehovah, at the front of the veil of the holy place.”
But the exact word appears only, of course, in Isaiah, where baptizo is being “overwhelmed” (even in English, “whelm” literally means “submerge”) by the awesomeness of the Lord, and what Elijah’s successor Elisha tells Naaman the Syrian to do in the Jordan.
John leads the people of Jerusalem back to their roots, in the Jordan. He wears the camel hair and belt that were the marks of Elijah and all the prophets. He eats wild honey, recalling the promised land of milk and honey, and locusts, a food of the poor in the desert and the animal food allowed by the charter of the people in Leviticus.
John reminds the people of Jerusalem who they are: a prophetic people, a people looking east, awaiting their Lord – a people of the desert, a city in the wilderness, gathered not by trade but by the Lord who comes.
To be Jerusalem and Israel is to say, “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals” – to wash his feet, though he submerges mine.
We too are called to be that prophetic people, a people gathered together in prophecy of the day of the Lord.
How would your parish be different if it lived as a prophetic people, a city in the wilderness?