Today we celebrate the feast day of St Mark, credited as the author of what is believed to be the earliest of the four gospels.
Some years ago I was given an exercise, and that was to read the Gospel of Mark all the way through from start to finish. The brief was to read it quickly in one go, not to go back and re-read anything that wasn’t obviously clear or to look for any underlying theological message, but rather to read it as if it were a novel. As the shortest of the gospels, this can usually be done in under an hour. Maybe you might want to try is as well and see what strikes you about this gospel.
What struck me was how busy and fast paced it is. (Jesus did this, and then Jesus did that, and after that Jesus went to …).
It comes across almost as an eyewitness account of what happened. It contains a huge amount of small detail, for instance the description of Jesus before the calming of the storm where Mark tells us that Jesus was asleep in the back of the boat with his head on a cushion. It also contains more quotes in Aramaic than any other of the gospels. On the surface, these small details could be seen as being irrelevant, but really they go to demonstrate a level of credibility and authenticity.
The Jesus in Mark’s gospel is very human, showing a range of human emotions – tears, anger and frustration. The disciples are often exposed for their lack of faith or failure to understand the gospel.
There is no Christmas story in Mark’s gospel. Instead he starts with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with his baptism in the River Jordan and takes us through his life culminating with the empty tomb. I once heard Mark’s gospel described as being a commentary of the passion with a very long introduction.
But what do we know about Mark?
Most of what we know about him comes directly from the New Testament. He is usually identified as the the young man in the Acts Of the Apostles. When Peter escaped from prison, he went to the home of Mark’s mother.
Paul and Barnabas took him along on the first missionary journey, but for some reason Mark returned alone to Jerusalem. It seems, from Paul’s refusal to let Mark accompany him on the second journey, that Mark had displeased Paul somehow, but because Paul later asks Mark to visit him in prison, we can assume this rift didn’t last long.
Mark wasn’t one of the twelve apostles. We can’t be certain whether he knew Jesus personally. Some scholars believe that Mark is speaking of himself when describing the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane: “Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked”
Mark is believed to be the first bishop of Alexandria in Egypt. Venice claims Mark as its patron saint and the famous Basilica of St Mark there is believed to contain his remains.
Most important of all though is that Mark fulfilled what all Christians are called to do – to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Mark’s way of doing this was through writing, others may do this through art, music, poetry or actions.
Today we recognise St Mark’s great literary achievement and its continuing significance to the Christian faith.