Today in churches all over the world, the prescribed reading for Advent is the story in the Gospel of Mark about John the Baptist. Of all the gospel stories, Mark is the oldest, pithiest, most direct and to the point. His story of Jesus is also the most human. His story does not begin with supernatural tales of Virgin births and angels (like Luke), or of long Jewish genealogies to establish a divine numerological relationship between King David and Christ (as Matthew does), nor does it stretch into mystical cosmological dimensions of space and time (as John does with "In the beginning was the Word"). This is how Mark begins his story of Jesus:
"The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:` Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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)
In the Gospel of Mark, the story begins with the prelude of Jesus's cousin, John, calling for a change of heart and a return to nature. John is the wild man of the gospels, and artistic depictions of him throughout the centuries have underscored this by painting him clothed in fur ("camel's hair") , with matted hair that often resembles dreadlocks and an unkempt beard. He's an odd character and strong medicine: a fearless truthteller who won't be quiet, even if it means risking his life. He is ultimately jailed, and executed, because he won't turn a blind eye when he sees corruption. Rather, he has a habit of making enemies in high places by his propensity to blow the whistle. In many ways, John embodies the raw, elemental force of nature: unadorned, unmitigated by social niceties and conventions. In Europe, the feast day of John the Baptist was so important in the Middle Ages that cease-fires were called for during times of war. For one day, armies put aside their weapons to go into the forest, sing and dance around enormous bonfires, celebrating the return to nature
The placement of John 's proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark suggests that this elemental, primal nature is one that "prepares" the way for the divine. How might shedding the conventions of society be necessary for you to encounter the divine? How can returning to the wilderness and an immersion in nature prepare you to experience the holy?