Readings: Hebrews 1:1-6; Psalm 97; Mark 1:14-20
As in Matthew and John, Mark tells us that the arrest of John the Baptist is the signal for the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. He has been active before that, as a kind of disciple of John (or so it would seem looking on from the outside), but once he hears of John's arrest things change quickly and radically: he withdraws from Judea into Galilee, and his own work of preaching, healing, and exorcism gets under way.
There is a strong contrast in Mark's gospel between the preaching of the Baptist and the preaching of Jesus. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus preaches the gospel of God, the fulfillment of time, and the imminence of the kingdom of God. It is time to repent and to believe in the gospel.
What has come between the preaching of John and the preaching of Jesus is Jesus' baptism and his temptation in the wilderness, both described briefly but profoundly by Mark. The opening of the heavens at the baptism is the answer to an ancient prayer of Israel that God would open the heavens, intervene, visit his people, come down, save them. Mark tells us that this prayer of Israel is answered in the moment of Jesus' baptism: the Spirit comes from the opened heavens to anoint Jesus while the Father's words, accompanying the Spirit's anointing, recognise him as the beloved Son with whom the Father is well pleased.
Jesus is now established in his identity. It happens at the level of his divine nature (if we can put it like this) in his baptism. And it happens at the level of his human nature in his temptation in the desert. There, as Mark describes it, the Son of God (Mk 1:1), is the centre of creation, tempted by the devil as Adam and Eve were, he is with the wild beasts as prophecies foretold about the child who would lead the people into the kingdom, and the angels ministered to him as was promised for God's chosen one in the psalms.
Hence the huge difference between the preaching of the Baptist - a call to repentance and to a symbolic enactment of it in baptism - and the preaching of Jesus - carrying the gospel of God, announcing that the time is fulfilled, saying that the kingdom of God is at hand. There is a whole new rationale for repentance, a whole new level of spiritual life, not just to try to tidy ourselves up and sort ourselves out, but to 'believe', to open ourselves to the approach of God, to be ready, like the first disciples, to answer his call and if necessary to leave everything we have known up to now in order to follow him into his kingdom.
Today's first reading, the opening verses of the Letter to the Hebrews, coincides beautifully with this. God had already spoken through prophets in many and in various ways but in these last days (when time is fulfilled), he has spoken through a Son (with whom he is well pleased), whom he has made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe (satan, angels, wild beasts). This Son is the refulgence of God's glory, the very imprint of his being, sustaining all things by his mighty word and accomplishing purification for sins (the kingdom of God is not just coming, it is now established in Jesus' teaching, actions, sufferings).
'Wait, hold on a minute', we might be tempted to say. This is all too much, too rich, for the first Monday of ordinary time. Everything is here already, a full summary of practically the entire creed in two short readings. But we too are invited by the angels to see the glory of the child born at Christmastime. And we too are invited by this child now grown to maturity to follow him. Follow him into the rich experience of human life which he makes possible for us: life in the kingdom here and now, life in his presence in the heavenly kingdom (the heavens have been torn open not just for him to 'come down' but for us to 'go up'). Why hesitate? Let us feast on these life sustaining doctrines and rejoice in the glory that is being revealed to us through them.