Bishop Mervyn Alexander (Bishop Declan’s predecessor) who was ordained bishop on the feast of St Mark, suggested that Mark’s Gospel was written for people in a hurry! It is the shortest of the four gospels and allows the reader of his good news to be taken up in the sheer energy and urgency of Jesus’ preaching, his ministry of healing, and his bringing in of God’s kingdom.
The new liturgical year which begins on the First Sunday of Advent (December 2017) means that Sunday by Sunday we pick up a reading of St Mark’s Gospel for the next twelve months (with a little gap allowing us to read St John’s sixth chapter in the summer). During this journey through our diocesan Year of Mission, there is an encouragement to read, pray and reflect upon Mark’s gospel and allow ourselves to be drawn every deeper into the life of a disciple called to echo the mission of Jesus. This series of monthly reflections was written by Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB, a monk of Ampleforth Abbey, for a Bristol parish three years ago. Its offered by way of helping each of us in our re-reading of the gospel of St Mark. Hopefully, it will help bring life to Mark’s story of Jesus and allow you to read it with fresh understand and an eagerness to walk closer to the Lord who calls each of us to be his disciples.
As Christmas recedes into the distance we begin the business of the year. Mark opens his Gospel with the proclamation of the new régime at the Baptism of Jesus. With all the solemnity of a formal revelation the heavens are split open, the Spirit of God descends and the Voice declares to Jesus, ‘You are my Son, the beloved’. The rest of the Gospel will lay out what this means, but it is not till Jesus has died on the Cross that a human being stumbles on the full meaning of the declaration: ‘Truly this man was Son of God’, says the centurion at the foot of the Cross. When Jesus departs into the desert for his preparation of forty days perhaps he too is pondering what this will mean for him. Mark tells us little about this period, suggesting only that it was already a return to the peace of the Garden of Eden, with the company of the beasts and served by God’s own ministers, the angels.
But as yet the meaning of the scene is known only to Mark’s audience, not to the actors in the events. With Markan irony, the first disciples to be called have no inkling who Jesus is. They merely drop everything and follow the magnetic personality of this unknown stranger. Gradually we, who already know who Jesus is, see them repeatedly amazed at his power and authority. First he teaches in the synagogue on his own authority, not like the Jewish teachers who merely repeat the interpretations of their rabbis. Then, in the crowded, stuffy room at Capernaum he claims to forgive sins; any self-respecting Jew knows that this is blasphemy: forgiveness comes only from God. But Jesus exercises God’s power to heal the sinner. Next he commands the wind and the seas and they obey. There is a crescendo of power, authority and awe, but still they do not understand. Jesus wearily rebukes them, the first of three rebukes to their lack of faith, each time on the Lake of Galilee, each couched in the characteristic Markan double-question, ‘Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?’ (4.40). The evil spirits recognize him, sure enough, but he binds them to silence, for his followers are not yet ready to understand.
Only when the eyes of the blind man of Bethsaida are opened does Peter at last also see and hail Jesus as the Messiah. He still does not understand what this means, and the second half of the Gospel, leading up to the Passion, focuses on the gradual and painful learning by the disciples that if they want to follow Jesus they must be prepared to share his Cross.
The story of the Gospel is a painful mirror of our own slowness to understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. We never know Jesus fully, and spend our whole lives learning what he really means, making mistake after mistake. And the hardest part is to learn the message of suffering with Christ.
On the first Sunday of Advent 2017 we start to read the Gospel of Mark on Sundays. It is universally agreed that Mark was the first Gospel to be written. It is also the shortest and simplest. We do not know who Mark was. He was certainly not one of the Twelve chosen Apostles of Jesus. However, if his full name was ‘John Mark’ he could have been one of Paul’s companions on his early missions. The mother of this John Mark had a house in Jerusalem, so that John Mark was presumably brought up in Jerusalem. In any case, Mark was chosen to write a Gospel not for his name but for his ability to express the message of the Gospel. It was an explosive message; Archbishop Rowan Williams calls it a ‘news bulletin’ about ‘régime change’.
Where did Mark get his information? The message about Jesus spread quickly by word of mouth among the Jewish communities scattered round the Eastern Mediterranean. In the non-literary society of those days verbal communication was considered at least as reliable as written documents – just as nowadays we get most of our information from the internet rather than from books. It was only when the original messengers of this Good News were beginning to fail that Mark wrote it all down. We can tell from his style that he was basically an oral teacher: oral teachers need to repeat themselves (‘at evening, when the sun had set’) to ensure that details have been heard! So, when he had been telling the stories for years, people decided that he did it so well that they asked him to write it all down.
Is the account reliable? Every story is told in a context, and the context for the telling of the Gospel story is the spread of this new religious group around the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. From the start they were mocked and persecuted for their belief: they were cut off from normal civic life by their refusal to acknowledge the gods whose worship formed the background of all civic activities. Every football match (so to speak) began with a sacrifice to the gods. Worse still, they refused to acclaim the Emperor as Lord; for them Christ was Lord – to the exclusion of any other lordship. This background of isolation and persecution must have affected the way the stories were told. In telling the story of Jesus, Mark is careful to remind his audience that even the chosen Twelve were slow and reluctant to grasp the Christian message that Resurrection can be reached only through suffering and persecution. Mark does not pretend that Christianity is an easy option.
Exploring Mark – An Introduction
The Gospel According to St Mark is the shortest of the four gospels but often tells of Jesus’ ministry in more detail. We have a series called ‘Exploring Mark’ that aims to bring us a little closer to Mark the Evangelist and his account of Jesus, his life and His ministry. The commentary is provided by the excellent Nicholas King SJ – an eminent author and Bible scholar and, as the post-nominal letters suggest, Jesuit priest.
This introduction comes from Fr Christopher Whitehead who heads up Adult Education and Evangelisation for the Clifton Diocese.
Explorong Mark – Question and Answer
Here’s a simple question and answer piece with the excellent Nicholas King SJ on St Mark and his gospel. Nicholas is an eminent author and Bible scholar and, as the post-nominal letters suggest, Jesuit priest.
Exploring Mark – 1 – The Beginning of the Good News
Here’s the first part of our ‘Exploring Mark’ series. It looks at St Mark’s Gospel in the company of the excellent author and Bible scholar Nicholas King SJ.
Today Nicholas, quite literally, starts at the beginning.
Exploring Mark – 3 – The Cross and Resurrection
Part Three of our ‘Exploring Mark’ series sees author and Bible scholar Nicholas King SJ examine the Cross and Resurrection in Mark’s Gospel.
Exploring Mark – 4 – Women in Mark’s Gospel
Part Four of our ‘Exploring Mark’ series sees author and Bible scholar Nicholas King SJ talk to us about the women in Mark’s Gospel and their encounters with Jesus.
Exploring Mark – 5 – Mark’s Strange Ending
The final part of our ‘Exploring Mark’ series sees author and Bible scholar Nicholas King SJ conclude the series by looking at what he calls Mark’s strange ending.