Where would be if we did not have the witness of the Gospels to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? These extraordinary documents reveal to us not only the salvific words and deeds of the Saviour, but also the faith of his followers from the moment when their witness became pivotal, and then to those among his disciples who were able to preserve that early preached word for us in written form – the Gospel writers, or evangelists. Today we keep the feast of one of them – Mark.
While not himself one of the Twelve, Mark seems to have enjoyed privileged relationships with those who were the early trailblazers of the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ, among the apostles, Peter and Paul, and their close collaborators, Barnabas and Timothy. He receives several mentions throughout the new testament writings – in Acts of the Apostles, and the letters of Paul and Peter – and is involved, at least early on, in Paul’s missionary journey to Antioch. According to the letter to the Colossians he may even have travelled with Timothy to Rome to meet Paul, and this would have been toward the end of Paul’s life.
Did Mark know Christ personally, even though he was not numbered among the close group? There is a suggestion that he refers to himself in his own Gospel, during the arrest of Christ (Mk 14:51-52), as the young man who flees, naked, from the scene. But even if this is not him, we can say that his personal knowledge of Christ was one gained from his close collaboration with Peter, with whom tradition links him as a disciple. If he knew Peter then the testimony which he offers in the Gospel surely can be taken almost as a first-hand account.
But it is as evangelist that we celebrate Mark’s memory, and that means that while he, as an historical and faith figure is important to us, much more important, indeed, the only thing important, is his speaking to us about Jesus Christ. As messenger and one who announces he becomes in a sense mouth-piece and makes Christ the one who is present among us, rather than the evangelist himself. And yet, Mark’s Gospel is a compelling piece of literature, and the man behind it must have been a compelling messenger.
The Gospel which Mark leaves us is the witness of a man who likes to tell a story, and likes his audience to listen and take note. For all it’s machine gun delivery and fast pace, Mark does not skimp on details. He wants us who read and hear to be enchanted and enthralled by the details which he offers in his stories around Jesus’ teaching and action: details about those who are sick and come seeking cures, the description which he allows himself to give in the stories about the feeding of the multitudes (he instructs them to be seated not just on grass, but on the green grass!), his concern for time and the hour when things happen in the narrative, the beginning of mission beyond the Jews in the encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, and so on. All this makes Mark’s Gospel a joy to read, hear and pray with. He wants us to become a part of the narrative and not simply passive bystanders.
All of this, it has been said, is merely a prelude. Some have called Mark’s Gospel “a Passion narrative with an introduction”, and there is much evidence in the Gospel itself which supports this. Mark’s intention from the outset is to bring the reader and hearer to the experience of the Passion and Death of Jesus, even to the extent that the last chapter which we have – Chapter 16 – is a later addition to ensure that the Gospel ends with a resurrection account, albeit one which leaves questions unanswered, especially around the hesitation of the apostles in their own belief. But this is not to say that the Jesus whom Mark offers us is one left in defeat, a failure, dead. On the contrary, although the so-called Messianic secret is emphasised in Mark – Jesus repeatedly forbids mention of his true and witnessed identity – he still cannot but give us a Jesus who is distinguished in all that he does and says by his power and authority and the astonishment of the people who hear what he teaches and see what he does. Mark’s Jesus is truly Son of God (15:39) from the very beginning of the narrative (1:1; 1:11, and often thereafter).
Faced with a figure such as Mark and the testimony which he gives us, we ask about our own involvement in the Gospel message and its proclamation. We know that the Church of the first centuries was a movement persecuted formally and consistently, with little respite, and yet it continued to grow and the Gospel continued to be preached, in season and out of season. That happened because of men and women like Mark who, convinced of the incontrovertible truth of the witness which they had received and which fired them in their deepest selves, put everything which they had at the service of the Gospel. These were people who, at the cost of their very lives, were convinced that there was nothing more important to them than their witness to Jesus Christ in the world, a world which, more often than not, mocked and pilloried and trampled upon their witness and the name of Jesus. These were men and women who were consumed by the Word which they had received, and for whom Jesus Christ was everything and everything else was so much rubbish.
How do I tell the Gospel story? How well do I know it? Has it penetrated me deeply, so deeply, that it has become the word in my mouth and the abiding thought in my mind and heart? For St Mark the Evangelist, the story meant only one thing – meeting Jesus, and that, probably, through the testimony of others. And that is the great vocation given to me – to meet Jesus in others, and then to tell my Gospel, my good news, how I have met this Jesus, to others.
-Part of our ‘Celebration of the Saints’ series-