>I began lectio divina reading of Mark today. I read chapter 1 through three times. I read almost aloud, mouthing the words in a breathy whisper to slow myself down. I have a bad habit of flying through texts and missing a lot in doing so. The standard instructions for lectio divina specify that one should read the passage repeatedly, and then find one verse or series of verses to meditate on. After the second reading-through, I thought I’d meditate on the end of the chapter, the healing of the leper. But as I began the third time through, my attention switched to the opening.
Mark loosely quotes Isaiah 40:3-5 in verses 2 and 3 of his Gospel:
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.’
The normal exegesis for this passage is pretty straightforward: John the Baptizer is identified as the ‘voice in the wilderness’ who is proclaiming the coming of the Lord (Jesus). But the original passage from Isaiah, of course, has a different context. First, the passage itself (Isaiah 40:3-5):
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all the people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Isaiah’s prophecy is speaking of a future prophet (generally identified as the returned Elijah) who is preparing the way not for a human Savior, but for God Gods’self. Mark appropriates the passage and re-theologizes it for his own uses. Jesus is Immanuel–God on earth with us–and so Isaiah’s prophecy takes on new, and more urgent meaning. John the Baptizer has proclaimed the immanent coming of the Kingdom of Heaven–which Jesus, as God Incarnate, has inaugurated. The waiting is over.
From a critical perspective, especially a Jewish one, one might criticize this appropriation of Isaiah, but for a Christian this approach to the Jewish scriptures is implicit and necessary. (That is not to say, of course, that the Christian reading of Isaiah, or any other book, is exhaustive or exclusively right, but only that each community has a right and responsibility to interpret texts as it is called to do). A more interesting question for modern Christians is, ‘what does this mean for us now?” Mark probably expected the coming of the Kingdom in his own lifetime. Nearly 2,000 years later, our approach to salvation history and prophecy is necessarily quite different.
I read the whole chapter three times over, but I read this one passage, verses 2 and 3, over and over and over. There seemed to be something hidden there, something beyond even Mark’s creative exegesis. Ok, so the Lord has come. Now what? It occurred to me, as I chewed over the passage, that the prophecy could be re-situated yet again. Understood as a direct exhortation to us Christians today, Mark could be read as calling us to make straight the paths of the Lord. Drawing on Paul’s famous explanation of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 wherein Jesus is the ‘first fruits’ of God’s justification. His resurrection is not the End, it is a beginning. We are called not simply to wait around for Jesus’ future return, but to accept as our own the crucifixion and to participate in the resurrection. Make straight the paths of the Lord. Feed the hungry. Silence our own anger. Stand for justice. Humble yourself before God.
In this light, the rest of Isaiah’s prophecy fills out with astounding and even frightening clarity. Here we have a great rebuke to those who wish to read the whole of the Bible literally. Are we to assume that the coming of the Kingdom means terraforming of the earth, that God hates geological variety? “…[E]very valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” The first shall be last, the last shall be first. Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek. The lion shall lie down with the lamb. The running theme is clear: injustice, oppression, and poverty are enemies of the Kingdom; its coming means their end. Valleys and mountains are powerful metaphors for human division.
Continuing, we have a yet more powerful vision of what God’s justification looks like: “Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” God’s glory is synonymous with the leveling of human society, it is the rejoining of the human family. And it is not for one group alone–Israelites, Christians, Whites, Men, or any other privileged group. It is for all people, as the passage states (literally)!
So, in short, my meditation on this short passage–and, in fact, my first time practicing lectio divina–was quite humbling and enlightening. For someone who normally blazes through texts but leaves much, perhaps even most, of the meaning in the pages, this belabored reading brought forth great fruit.