Summary: Is there really a Christmas Story in the Gospel of Mark
Christmas According to St. Mark
St. Matthew has a Christmas story in which Joseph is prominent. St. Luke has a Christmas story. Even John has a Christmas story from a cosmic perspective where the Word became flesh. But is there a Christmas story in Mark? Let us see.
From first appearances, one would have to say that there is no Christmas story. Mark’s account of the Good News begins with the baptism of John. There are no wise men, virgin birth, angels, shepherds, or even a single account from Jesus’ youth, like Luke has. It appears to begin when Jesus was about thirty years of age.
It is the lack of a Christmas narrative that helped fuel a heresy that denied that Jesus was really human called Docetism, in which Jesus only appeared to be human and another similar heresy called Adoptionism where the divine Spirit came into the body of an earthly Jesus at His baptism and left Him at the cross to laugh over the dying body of an entirely human Jesus. The other Gospels clearly refute such an idea, and the early church rightly rejected both of these heresies. The question may be asked then, “If not to present one of these heretical views, why does Mark begin in the middle of the story?
The Gospel of Mark does not actually begin with the Baptizing of John, per se, but rather in the prophecies of the Old Testament of which John the Baptist’s ministry was the fulfillment. The Gospel actually begins with the promise of God given to the world in the Old Testament. Mark quotes two prophets, Malachi and Isaiah, although he mentions Isaiah which is the longer of the two quotations. Malachi was the last of the Old Testament prophets, and the Old Testament ends with a promise of sending a messenger, Elijah, to prepare the way of the Messiah. Mark picks up His gospel where Malachi left off about 400 years earlier, and shows the continuity of the two testaments.
Mark then tells us the message of preparation which the messenger was to bring. He quotes the prophet Isaiah, the 40th chapter. He only quotes the third voice about the messenger crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord”. A sect of Judaism which we know as the Essenes or the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls took the message that the way was to be prepared in the wilderness. The actually left civilization and moved to the wilderness to prepare the way there. It seems that the Christians interpreted this as the location of John in the wilderness and put the emphasis on preparing the way of the Lord without stressing where the way was to be prepared.
By citing this verse from Isaiah, he is in a sense quoting the entire passage. The context of Isaiah could be seen to have been fulfilled by the return of the Jewish captives from Babylon, first after the edict of Cyrus in 539 B.C. God could be seen as preparing the way through the wilderness for this return. Like the preparations for a superhighway, every attempt is made to make this road as straight and smooth as possible. The straightest path often encountered obstacles like mountains and gullies. This is why many roads curve around the obstacles. But God had set the way to be straight. The high places were to cut down to fill the low places so that the road would be level and straight. It would be paved to make it smooth.
But is the return of the exiles in 539 BC and later times under Nehemiah the real fulfillment. The answer has to be “no” from the Christian viewpoint. Its fulfillment is rather begun under the preaching of John the Baptist in the wilderness to spiritually prepare God’s people from their real exile. Their exile was not from the land. Rather their exile was one from God. The prophets had been silent for hundreds of years. Now after an exile of 400 years, the same period of time that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, the voice of God was heard again. The time of Exodus had come. The time of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah was now. John the Baptist was to prepare a straight path to Jesus without any detours.
Verse four tells us that John’s preparation for the Christ was the way of repentance. Repentance has the Hebrew idea of turning from the road one is on to a new road. The Greek idea of repentance is to carefully consider where the road they were currently on was taking them and the new way that was being offered. The idea is that of changing one’s mind. Both of these ideas are at work here.