'He proclaimed, "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."' - Mark 1:1-8

The best help to correctly understanding the liturgical readings employed during this time of year is to realize that none of our sacred authors had Christmas in mind when they composed them.

Deutero-Isaiah, for instance, not only knew nothing about Christmas; he knew nothing about Jesus of Nazareth. Active during the 530s BC - the last years of the Babylonian Exile - the main goal of his oracles is to prepare his people for their return to the Promised Land.

Sunday's first reading (Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11) contains his first words: "Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated."

Beaten down by 50 years of exile, most Israelites threw in the towel years before, giving up any hope of ever returning to the land of their parents and grandparents. Yet now this stranger has appeared on the scene, telling them to prepare the road between Babylon and Jerusalem. There's going to be a new Exodus, and they're going to be part of it.

Shepherd and sheep
They're no longer to look at Yahweh as a vindictive God. Now, "like a shepherd He feeds His flock; in his arms He gathers the lambs, carrying them in His bosom, and leading the ewes with care." What a turnabout! The things they'd been anticipating for several generations are now just around the corner.

Of course, there's a reason so many of the prophet's exiled community refused to believe his consoling words. "How," they demanded to know, "can you be so certain Yahweh's going to get us out of here?"

Deutero-Isaiah simply responds, "The mouth of Yahweh has spoken." We have God's word on it.

That sort of reminds me of a scene in that classic 1970s film "Oh, God." After George Burns (God) gives John Denver a list of the things he's supposed to tell the powers that be, Denver wants to know how he can assure these people that this list actually comes from God.

"No problem," Burns replies. "Just show them my card." He hands Denver a calling card with just one word printed on it: "God."

I presume Deutero-Isaiah could easily have identified with John Denver. Is having God's word enough of a guarantee that what God has said will actually be carried out?

The author of II Peter (3:8-14), writing in the first years of the second Christian century, believes it is. Though most of his fellow Christians gave up looking for Jesus' Parousia years before, he's still holding out hope that those "new heavens and new earth" are just a few years down the road. The risen Jesus is simply more patient than his disciples. If Jesus promised He'd come back, He'll come back.

On the way
In a similar way, Mark's John the Baptist (Mark 1:1-8) is willing to risk his life to deliver God's word about the imminent start of Jesus' public ministry. Though people are coming from miles around "to be baptized by him in the Jordan River," he wants them to look forward to one who "will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

In some sense, he's saying, "Based on God's Word, the best is still to come."

Instead of concentrating on Christmas, perhaps it would be better today to concentrate on the Word of God Jesus proclaimed. After all, as His disciples, we're committed to proclaim that same Word.

When He finally appears in the Gospel, He announces, "God's kingdom is close at hand!" How do we know God's present and working effectively in our daily lives? I have no doubt the historical Jesus would respond to that question with a simple, "God has said it."

If God's Word is good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for us.