Bible Verse of the Day

Saturday, February 23, 2013

St. Mark: The Man Behind the Gospel - a feast of divine inspiration and hope eternal

I have somewhat neglected promoting discipleship recently - the following account, biography and insight into St. Mark's gospel and its effect on his peers and thus our lives, resounds to this day! - read on....

"And they all forsook Him, and fled. And there followed Him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on Him: and he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked."

This puzzling incident, mentioned only in the Gospel according to St. Mark, is taken by many Bible readers as a reference to Mark himself. It's tempting to assume that the Evangelist, perhaps still in his teens, was in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of Christ's arrest, and that he fled in panic when threatened with arrest himself. Whether he knew Jesus remains a matter of conjecture. His adult life, at any rate, was dedicated to the faith to which we owe one of the world's great books.

The second Gospel in the Bible, this book is the oldest of the four, and served as a model for the other two Synoptic ("common-view") Gospels, written by Matthew and Luke. John's "spiritual Gospel," the last to be published, stands apart. Perhaps because it is the shortest Gospel, Mark's work was for centuries the neglected book of the New Testament. Today Mark finds favour with a growing number of believers. His brevity, his crisp directness, his emphasis on deeds rather than words, make him the most immediate of the Four Evangelists.

His Hebrew name was John, and he is often called John Mark, the Latin "surname" Marcus pointing to a possible connexion with Rome, which was ruling Palestine. His family was well-to-do. Mark's mother, Mary, lived in Jerusalem in a large house that served as rallying point for the city's embattled little group of Christians. Some believe that it was this house Jesus chose for His Last Supper with the Twelve, and that the "goodman" referred to by the Lord in this connexion was Mark's father. Unquestionably, Mark grew up in an atmosphere vibrant with hopes and fears and the excitement of a new-born faith.

No wonder that the bright and personable lad was given an active role in the community. The Christian group in Antioch, a flourishing city on the Syrian Coast (now Turkey), had sent two emissaries with relief funds to the suffering breth­ren in Jerusalem. The messengers were Paul and Barnabas. While in Jerusalem, they probably lodged at the house of Mary, Barnabas' aunt.

When they set off on their first mission to the Gentiles, they took Mark along as their assistant. He shared the hardships of their trip and possibly helped with an occasional baptism or sermon. But when their mission arrived at Perga, on the coast of Asia Minor, Mark left his two companions and went home.

Scholars have tried to find a reason for this unexplained departure. Some think that it was a city boy's fear of the harsh, brigand-ridden mountain roads of Asia that led into the pagan depths of Galatia - the mission's goal. Or was he simply homesick for Jerusalem? Whatever the motive, Paul could not easily forget Mark's sudden turnabout. Later, the breach was healed. Paul forgave Mark, and even drew him back into his inner circle.

But the decisive influence in Mark's career was his close tie with Peter, Prince of Apostles. Their friendship may have formed when Mark was still a youngster in Jerusalem. The majestic figure of the fisherman must have made a profound impression on young Mark. Perhaps the older man instructed the boy in the new faith; it is even possible that he baptized Mark. Perhaps their paths crossed in Antioch where Peter was a leader of the Church, and the friendship deepened with their common work.

As Christianity turned its appeal from Palestine to the vast orbit of thr Gentile nations, it was logical licit Mark would join the fast-growing Christian community in Rome, the power centre of the Western world. We may assume that at some later date he was in Rome with Peter, who in all likelihood already played an influential role there and must have been glad to use the talents of his devoted friend. "Marcus my son," the grand old man affectionately called him at the end of his First Epistle.

"Mark wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that Peter remembered of the Lord's sayings and doings." So wrote Papias, bishop in Asia Minor, a generation after Peter's death. For Jesus of Nazareth had left no writings. The epic story of His life and death had been passed on by word of mouth. As eyewitnesses of those events were disappearing and as new, eager converts kept asking for more details, the need for a fixed record became pressing.

Whether one or two sketchy texts existed before Mark produced his Gospel remains a much-debated question. Matthew and Luke, while drawing overwhelmingly on Mark's original, seem to have used some other common source, lost to posterity. Majority opinion holds that Mark was the first writer to compose an account of the Lord's earthly days and that he based his work, for the most part, on eye­witness stories and live tradition. And we may well assume that his prime source was Peter, a leading member of Christ's inner circle from the early days in Galilee.

Mark was approaching 50 when, about A.D. 65, he wrote the 'Evangelion', the Good News, from which our own word Gospel, or "good tidings," is derived. Writing in Greek, then the common language of the eastern Mediterranean, Mark tends to use coarse phrases and expressions. Some scholars have discerned, behind the text, an author who wrote in Greek but thought in Aramaic, the mother tongue of Christ and the Apostles.

This Gospel is no history book, nor is it a biography of Jesus. Mark tells of the "Son of Man," whose deeds and suffering proved Him the Son of God. We look in vain for the Lord's Prayer or the Sermon on the Mount. Mark gives us but eight parables - against Matthew's 20 and Luke's 29 - and only one long sermon. The emphasis throughout his Gospel is on action. The narrative comes up like thunder, with the appearance of the Lord before the Baptist, and rolls on like a river to Christ's suffering and Resurrection.

Mark's breathless style speeds it along: "And they watched Him ... And He goes up ... And straight­way . . . And immediately . . . And forthwith . . ." In keeping with the oral tradition of the primitive church, Mark often switches to the present tense: "And they compel one Simon ... to bear His cross. And they bring Him unto the place Golgotha."

In the 16 crowded chapters of Mark's Gospel we follow Jesus' wanderings through Galilee, see Him work miracles, watch Him enter Jerusalem, and witness the momentous climax. Mark makes it plain that Jesus' ministry is one tremendous battle against overwhelming odds. We, the spectators, watch with bated breath as He moves to His inevitable fate. The story ends, abruptly and mysteriously, with the empty tomb: "And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid."

Many vivid details make us feel that "we are there." We tremble for the storm-tossed and sinking ship while Christ is in die stern, "asleep on a pillow." When Jesus raises the 12-year-old girl from die dead, we hear Him use his native Aramaic: "Talitha cumi—Damsel, I say unto thee, arise." Here and there, the jewel flash of poetry illuminates the text: "And He was transfigured before them. And His raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller [bleacher] on earth can white them."

Mark never minces words. Time and again, he tells us that the Twelve were too obtuse to understand the meaning of their Lord's Messiahship. "Having eyes, see ye not?" He asks them. "How is it that ye do not understand?" They squabble among themselves who should be "the chiefest." Peter himself "rebukes" the Lord when He announces His inevitable suffering, and Christ tells him, "Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savourest not the things that be of God."

Here is humanity - raw, unadorned and true. Here, also, is the stuff of persevering faith. Mark wrote his Gospel under Nero, the Roman emperor notorious for his bloody persecutions of the followers of Christ. His readers might, at any moment, be rounded up as enemies of the state, to be imprisoned, tortured or thrown to the wild beasts in Nero's circus.

When read in this light, Mark's Gospel may be called a Manual for Martyrs. Had Christ not told His men they would have to drain the cup of which He had drunk Himself? "Take heed... they shall deliver you up to councils; and ... ye shall be beaten: and ye shall be brought before rulers and kings for my sake." It was such words that those brave men and women must have remembered in their final agony, with the promise: "He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved."

Thus, there emerges an author of great faith and strength. A manly vigour manifests itself in every verse. His courage to proclaim the truth as it had been revealed to him blends with his warm humanity to form the image of a truly apostolic figure.

Mark's Gospel, copied by pious hands, was circulated throughout the Mediterranean world, and was accepted as authoritative by all Christians. Among its avid readers were the Apostle Matthew and the Gentile Luke, both of whom must have found the book in the Near East. Of Mark's 661 authentic verses, 630 reappear, with or without variations, in their Gospels. It is less certain whether John read Mark. By the end of the second century, the elders of the Church united the four books, together with Paul's 13 Letters and the Acts of the Apostles, into a single volume that was accorded equal status with the sacred scriptures. Thus, the New Testament was born.

We have no reliable record of Mark's later life. According to some early Christian writers, he made his way to Alexandria in Egypt, where he served as bishop of the Christian Church, and is believed to have died a martyr.

In 828, two seafarers from Venice seized Mark's remains and brought them back in triumph to their home port. Mark was proclaimed the city's patron saint and a church was built to house his relics. As centuries went by, this church grew more beautiful and resplendent in gold and marble. Today, St. Mark's Cathedral, with its lofty cupolas and glittering mosaic, remains one of the world's great tourist landmarks, and an unrivalled monument of Christian art. And although the "Republic of St. Mark" has long passed into history, the Winged Lion, Mark's time-honoured symbol, is the official emblem of the sea-born city, Venice.

Mark himself is present, to this day, in every house where there is a Bible. Like his fellow Evangelists, he modestly lets the text of his "Good News" speak for itself. Yet, while the author might prefer the shades of anonymity to the bright light of fame, our knowledge of the man behind the Gospel contributes to the joy of reading it!