The Sunday Gospel readings for this new liturgical year will be drawn mostly from the Gospel account according to St. Mark. Mark’s account is the shortest of the four Gospels, only sixteen chapters; the other three have at least ten more.
His account is probably the oldest of the four, written possibly around the year 70AD; in fact Ss. Matthew and Luke might have used Mark’s text as a guide for their own Gospel narratives. Although Mark is sometimes identified as the young man who ran off ill-clad from the Last Supper room, the actual author was probably not a Palestinian Jew but rather a Greek-speaking Jew with some Roman connections. Latin words creep into his text and he is not too familiar with the geography of the Holy Land. He is most likely John Mark mentioned in Acts as an aide to Ss. Paul and Barnabas and later mention by St. Peter as an aide. Several small details in Mark’s writing indicate that he had access to an eye-witness of Jesus’ public life. Jesus asleep “on a cushion” during a storm and Jesus instructing that the little girl just cured “be given something to eat” might have come first-hand from St. Peter. Also, the Jesus found in Mark’s account is quite human, perhaps again reflecting St. Peter’s first-hand remembrances.
Jesus shows pity, anger, success, sympathy, surprise, admiration, sadness, and indignation. Mark’s Jesus is definitely a son of man.
Mark does not offer lengthy synopses of Jesus’ teachings. He has no Sermon on the Mount. Rather Mark offers crisp episodes of Jesus teaching and preaching through parables, healing and curing, and dramatically exorcising demons. Mark has thirty-four references to demon possession – much more than Ss. Matthew or Luke while St. John has none. Scholars have discerned especially in Mark’s Gospel account a so-called Messianic secret citing several references: Mark 1:44; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26, 30.
Throughout his narrative Mark has Jesus insist that persons who recognize him as the Son of God or the Messiah or the Christ should not declare this belief openly: “And whenever unclean spirits saw him they would fall down before him and shout, “You are the Son of God.” He warned them sternly not to make him known.” Popular belief concerning the Messiah focused on a triumphal leader after the manner of King David who would arrive to throw off foreign tyrants and re-establish the Jewish nation. Jesus resisted this tendency to understand the Messiah as a military or political figure. Rather Jesus has the difficult task of convincing the disciples and the crowds that he has come to offer salvation through his suffering and death – not exactly a battle cry.
It is surely no coincidence that the Gospel according to Mark is cut exactly in half by the celebrated confession of St. Peter who acknowledges Jesus as the Christ: “And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Messiah.” Before this point, Jesus has been celebrated as the miracle worker, the great preacher, the celebrated foil of demons, the confounder of pompous religious leaders. Mark’s takes eight chapters to build up Jesus Christ as superstar, celebrity, hero. But after the confession of St. Peter, Mark, as do Ss. Matthew and Luke, introduces his readership to Jesus Christ the suffering servant: “He began to teach them that the Son of Man* must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.” One might almost accuse Mark of the old “bait and switch” con. The attractive figure of mighty preacher and powerful healer yields to the challenging personality who will be misunderstood, betrayed, tortured and crucified.
The disciples, to say nothing of the crowds and the religious leaders, find this transition difficult but Jesus’ whole ministry is a mission dedicated to revealing that just as Jesus will be victorious after his crucifixion and death so the believing community will be victorious after the persecutions and ordeals of history. “Taking the Twelve aside again, he began to tell them what was going to happen to him. “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, but after three days he will rise.”
Salvation through suffering and death is so central to Mark’s appreciation of Jesus’ ministry that he offers only the briefest reference to the Resurrection: “On entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe, and they were utterly amazed…Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Right now, the patient endurance of suffering is the Gospel message; victory, triumph and rejoicing will follow soon enough.