“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God”. These are the words that open Mark’s gospel. Since it is the beginning, it’s natural to expect a narrative or a poem speaking to Christ’s birth to follow. Matthew opens with the genealogy and then “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way” (Matthew 1:18). Luke begins with John the Baptist, a narrative which points to Christ’s birth and is then quickly followed in Luke with the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary and ultimately the birth narrative we all know and love. John’s Gospel opens with a prologue setting the stage for a book of miracles, signs and wonders about life with God with us, God “in the flesh”, the Word becoming flesh and living among us (John 1:14). But Mark bypasses all that. We often (and not wrongly) think of the “good news” beginning with Jesus’ birth. After all it is his birth about which the angels say is “good news for all the people”. So when Mark says “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…” it’s natural to expect another birth narrative.
Mark disappoints. No birth narrative here. No shepherds, no angels, no mangers, no magi, and presumably plenty of room in the inn. But perhaps Mark doesn’t skip the birth. The “beginning of the good news” according to Mark is not a physical birth born of water and the flesh but a spiritual birth born of the Spirit. The beginning of the good news is that though this physical world matters and our actual real physical lives matter, there is more to this life than flesh and bone, than earth and wind, and dust and water. The Spirit of God is here. And so we come to the waters of baptism in recognition that just as those waters surround us and are poured over us and we are immersed in them, so too is the Spirit of God poured over us and we are immersed in her and given a spiritual birth. The good news is that Jesus Christ, the son of God is the one who will not just cleanse us by virtue of a ritual cleansing with water, but will give us life, Spirit-of-the-living-God kind of life, by opening up the floodwaters of God’s spirit upon us: “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).
God is not concerned with rituals and religion. God wants us to connect to the God’s Spirit in whom we are immersed, whether we know it or not. And if ritual and religion help us do that, great. But it’s not about the ritual or religion. It’s about knowing, experiencing, and connecting to something- or better said, someone- beyond ourselves. Beloved… God is with you. God surrounds you. God envelopes you. Today, tomorrow, and forever. Don’t forget it, and don’t let anything nor anyone tell you otherwise.