At the turn of the year I offered a couple of reflections on the Gospel the Church uses in the lectionary this year, that of St Mark; it is a theme to which I want to return. This is partly because of an excellent post on the subject on a blog, new to me, The Liturgical Theologian, which had a splendid post on the Gospel, which includes the wonderful comment:
‘Reading Mark requires that we celebrate tension, embrace mystery and discipleship, and look for the breaking in of God’s kingdom’
which seems to me to spot on, and partly because of the thoughts that inspires.
What can it mean when Mark says:
Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent ye and believe the Gospel.”
Those contemporaries who saw it as heralding the imminent second coming of Christ were, even by the time St John’s Gospel wrote, beginning to realise that such a literalist reading was not accurate. But if we see it addressed to each of us, then a literal reading is not only possible, but essential – if we repent and receive Christ, then the Kingdom of God is now, in us; the world has changed because we have changed – and we have changed because God’s love has changed us.
If, as the Church holds, Mark was the follower of Peter, who is mentioned by St Peter, and his account is based on Peter’s teaching, then the form of the Gospel makes perfect sense. The short and sharp nature of the stories, with the punch line, work very well as homilies. We cannot be sure of Mark’s exact role, but we can see from the final form that he has crafted a set of wonderful examples of what the Good News is and why it matters. If we envisage the Gospel as circulating, like Paul’s letters, throughout the churches of the Mediterranean world, we are probably not far from realising its original intention and context. It would certainly explain why, despite not being a first-person account, and being so short, it got such an immediate hearing from Christians.
It is difficult to be certain of Mark’s identity, but there is a clue in his account of the passion. In mentioning Simon the Cyrenian, he mentions his sons, ‘Alexander and Rufinus’ in a way which assumes his hearer knew who they were. The ‘John Mark’ in Acts is a friend of Barnabas, who was a wealthy merchant from Cyprus, who would have been part of that great network of trading settlements across the Mediterranean region, and it seems likely that in the mention of Alexander and Rufinus, we have members of a trading family who Mark’s readers would have known; it is difficult to account for their being mentioned otherwise. It would also make sense of Mark’s association with Alexandria (where he is said to have founded the Egyptian Church), which had a huge Jewish population involved in trade.
If we posit a Mark who had worked with Peter and Paul, who is writing in the aftermath of their deaths and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in A.D> 70, we get some sense of why he wrote and why his message is so urgent. His portrait of Jesus draws us directly into a relationship with him; we understand why he changed Mark’s life and Peter’s life, and so many lives; we want him to change our life too. History has been changed, and the challenge for us is clear – if we are changed, then nothing will be the same again. God attests to His Son, the demons protest, the world is utterly changed by Jesus – and we will be too. Are we ready for that?
This is why there is no prologue, no infancy narrative, no background – the world has changed, the kingdom is at hand – in you, and in me, and in all who confess His holy name. There really is no time for introductions.