Today the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Mark, the Evangelist. Scholars believe that St. Mark's Gospel was the first to record the story of the Passion and Death of Jesus.
Before the second Vatican Council of the 1960's, the Gospel of Mark was rarely used in the Sunday lectionary and only occasionally used in the weekday lectionary. With the renewal of the liturgy, the lectionary was revised so that each of the synoptic Gospels would be featured in one of three annual cycles with the Gospel of John being used during Lent and Easter Seasons in all three cycles. Thus the Gospel of Mark was thrust onto the liturgical stage and came under a great deal of study and critique.
The importance of the Gospel of St. Mark lies in the fact that it is the first of the four canonical Gospels to be written. Though it is the shortest of the Gospels, its importance cannot be measured by the number of pages it takes up in the Christian Scriptures. St. Matthew and St. Luke both knew the Gospel of St. Mark and used it as the basis for their gospels. They followed his general outline, used the same literary techniques, and reproduced large sections of St. Mark’s Gospel almost verbatim. Consequently, it is possible to say that St. Mark is largely responsible for the shape and structure of the three synoptic Gospels.
It is evident that this particular Gospel was written for a community which was suffering or was about to suffer great persecution. Thus, it has been posited that the Gospel was written for the Church of Rome before or during the persecutions of Emperor Nero. Some of the features which support this theory are:
1. The Gospel of St. Mark places a great deal of emphasis on the suffering and death of Jesus. Chapters 11 through 16, one third of the Gospel, are concerned with the final week of Jesus life and ministry culminating in his death and resurrection. Chapters 1 through 10 move with deliberate action toward the passion. As one commentator wrote: “The shadow of the cross is visible at every step of the way in the Gospel of St. Mark.
2. It is St. Mark who assures the disciples that the blessings that will be bestowed on them for their discipleship will be accompanied by “persecutions.”
3. Chapter 13, verses 9, 12, and 13 graphically detail the oppression and persecution which the disciples will encounter as a result of following Jesus.
4. Two of the three predictions that Jesus makes about his own passion and death are accompanied by descriptions of the sufferings that await his followers.
5. In the parable of the sower, Jesus states that the seed that falls on rocky ground is like those who lose heart when tribulation and persecution comes because of their acceptance of the Word.
Because of this identification with the Church of Rome and the social atmosphere of persecution and martyrdom, as well as because of the date when the Gospel appears, some Scripture scholars have cast St. Mark as a scribe who collected the sayings of Jesus, the miracles stories and exorcisms, pronouncement and controversy stories, and the Passion narrative from St. Peter who himself died in the persecution of Emperor Nero.
The distinctive theology of St. Mark and the liturgical proclamation of his Gospel come together at the cross of Jesus. While the Gospel of St. Matthew pictures Jesus as the “teacher,” “the new Moses,” and while the Gospel of St. Luke depicts him as the incarnate compassion of God, St. Mark sees Jesus through the mystery of the cross. This fact enlightens for us part of the history of the Church. The most difficult part of being a follower or disciple of Jesus for the people of the Apostolic era was the notion that God had sent His Son to die on a cross. How could a God who was all powerful allow His Son to be executed by weak human beings? It took decades for the people to come to accept that this was God’s intention.
Remember that the letters of St. Paul were all written before the Gospels. It is in those letters that we can see the early Church coming to grips with this issue. St. Paul reminds the communities which he founded that we are saved not by what we do but by what Jesus did for us; namely, by dying on a cross. "For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (I Corinthians 1:22-24). It took years for this message to sink in. St. Mark’s Gospel, written on the eve of the era of persecution when many of these people would lose their lives for what they believed, picks up where St. Paul left off. If you want to understand who Jesus is, you must understand him as the crucified, the vanquished, the one who made himself weak so that human beings could overpower him. When one understands Jesus from this perspective, martyrdom at the hands of the Roman emperor makes sense. Then and only then will the words of Jesus make sense: He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? What could one give in exchange for his life? Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels." (Mark 8:34-38)
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator