David Lincicum, D.Phil.
Associate Professor, New Testament Studies
University of Notre Dame
Who doesn’t love a good road trip?
From Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, American literature is criss-crossed with road trips, journeys of transformation and discovery (many of them mapped if you’d like to follow along). And the very title of this post is probably enough to embed Willie Nelson’s earworm in your head for the next several weeks.
For the earliest Christians the road was something like a master metaphor. They inherited the scriptural habit of referring to their ethical conduct as a ‘way’ or ‘path’, they designated Jesus as the ‘road’ to God (John 14:6), and were even called ‘the road’ or ‘the way’ before they became designated ‘Christians’ (see Acts 9:2; 11:26). In this sense, we would do well occasionally to translate hodos with ‘road’ rather than the more abstract ‘way’, to remind ourselves of the concreteness of the image.
But why did the designation come to have such prominence?
For any nation, institution, or even for individual families, the story of their founding offers an anchor in the past to which they can return for guidance, an Archimedean point or a north star by which to navigate. Israel had multiple founding moments – creation, the election of Abraham, the giving of the Torah – but the deliverance of Israel from her forced slavery to Egypt in the Exodus loomed large among them.
The Passover tradition commemorating the Exodus ensured that the annual remembrance, the anamnetic commemoration of the deliverance, held the event regularly before the eyes of God’s people, and so it became over time a basic paradigm of salvation. When Israel found herself oppressed and in politically disadvantageous circumstances, she could remember God’s prior act of rescue from Egypt and ask for a repetition, an Exodus 2.0.The appeal for a sequel to the Exodus runs throughout the Psalms, but also enlivens the section of prophecy we have come to call deutero-Isaiah. In a turning point – beautifully captured in the opening movement of Handel’s Messiah – God instructs the prophet to comfort Israel after her long punishment in the Babylonian exile. Israel has been far from her homeland in a forced migration, but the prophet announces to the migrants a return: ‘in the wilderness, prepare a road for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’. The refugees needed a way to cross the foreboding desert to return westward to their ancestral land, and the prophet announces another exodus through another wilderness as the way to get there. After all, if God had done it once, he could certainly be asked for a repeat performance.
Flash forward over half a millennium, and the Gospel of Mark re-uses Isaiah’s words in its prologue: as it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “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’”. Close scrutiny reveals that the text is actually a conflated citation of Exodus, Malachi and Isaiah, but the mixed citation is ascribed to Isaiah as a means of signaling the controlling framework. Now, however, it isn’t the highway that is built in the wilderness, but rather the messenger who makes his proclamation there as a vox clamantis in deserto.
But what sort of road does Mark envisage? If he announces the construction of an Isaianic New Exodus highway, where does it go? The people of God are already in the land, and the idea of movement is initially puzzling.
Isaiah had announced the advent of YHWH, but in Mark’s telling – with a bit of help from the Greek translation of the Hebrew original – it is the kyrios, the Lord who comes: Jesus now acting in YHWH’s anticipated place. But rather than arrive with guns blazing, to unseat the Romans and reinstate the kingdom of God with force, with power, as the greatest country on the face of the earth, he comes in self-dispossession. And as Mark’s Gospel proceeds, we begin to notice that Jesus summons not soldiers and politicians, but a few fishermen and other workers to join him on the road.
Mark’s Gospel is thus a sort of road trip. Something is always happening euthus, immediately. Jesus seems to rush breathlessly from one healing or conflict to the next, and for the first half of his story the movements almost seem erratic (just try to work out the sea crossings in Mark!). But ‘on the road’, Jesus poses to the disciples a question about his identity (8:27), and from that time onward – even though his true identity is first grasped only haltingly, and never really fully until the cross – Jesus walks a single path, with firm intention: to make his way to Jerusalem.
The reader only slowly realizes, with dawning horror, that God’s highway, to which Isaiah pointed, the path out of the wilderness and to the promised land, is a death march. Jesus presses relentlessly on, progressively alienated from those around him, even finally from God, until he ascends the royal road to the ironic enthronement of the cross.
What might have seemed to the casual observer to be merely another senseless death, another body crushed by the turning wheel of an unsteady history, now appears, to the eyes of faith, as the coming of God: not as one might have deduced it by reflecting abstractly on the most fitting way for a god to arrive, but by viewing the crucifixion from the road, following on behind Jesus as a disciple called to walk after the master.
In Advent, we reflect on the coming of Jesus in helplessness to the world and look forward to his coming again to set the world to rights. And we walk, as a pilgrim people, on the long road that stretches between those two advents. The path is sometimes an ambiguous one, as the apostle Paul knew all too well. He could describe it as a triumphal procession in which it is unclear whether we are the victors parading in triumph or the vanquished prisoners marching toward death (2 Cor. 2:14–16).
Jesus offers, now as then, a place behind him as followers on the path he broke. But the disciple is not above the master. The road of the new exodus is not a scenic drive that skirts the dodgy parts of town in favor of the countryside. But it leads after Jesus, through death and onward, into the hope of a resurrected life.