Today we light the second candle on the Advent wreath. This candle is called the Bethlehem candle, recalling the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, or sometimes the preparation candle. The prophet Isaiah, writing in the sixth century BC during the exile of the Jews in Babylon, was full of hope, looking forward to a time of liberation both from captivity in a foreign land and - more importantly - from the captivity of sin. His prophecy was fulfilled when the “voice in the Wilderness” appeared. John the Baptist was the last of the line great prophets who looked forward to but never saw the fulfilment of their expectation. John the Baptist, however, was the one singled out to make straight the highway of the one who was to come. He must have startled people with his simple dress of camel skin and his austere way of life; nonetheless, people flocked to hear him. He was clear about the ways people must change their behaviour. They must act justly to one another. His message is as fresh today as it was in his time.
Mark chooses to begin his gospel with John's appearance. Of course John is preaching about the adult Christ; but his message draws us back to Christ’s coming in Bethlehem. Both John’s mother and his father, inspired by the Spirit, had prophesied about the marvellous events that were to take place. Elizabeth had felt her baby leap for joy in her womb at the sound of Mary’s voice (Luke 1:44) and Zechariah had foretold the role that his young son would play:
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.
That child points the way for us towards Bethlehem.