Today’s blog celebrates Saint Mark, the Evangelist, whom the Church remembers this week in the liturgical calendar. It is offered by Brother Mark McVann, F.S.C., Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Mary’s College, who describes what we know of the origins of the Gospel ascribed to Saint Mark. He reminds also of the suffering of the persecuted Christian community that first received it and the similar suffering of Christian communities in our own day and age.
The Feast of Saint Mark, Evangelist (25 April)
Brother Mark McVann, F.S.C.
Despite several tantalizing but irreconcilable theories, really nothing is known of the identity of the Second Gospel’s author. An ancient claim is that Mark was Saint Peter’s assistant before he was martyred in Rome during Nero’s persecution of the church, A.D. 64 or 67. The gospel was, many think, composed there, a distillation by Mark of Peter’s preaching. Another tradition holds that perhaps that same Mark was the John Mark who accompanied Paul and Barnabas on a missionary journey through Cyprus. Yet another thought is that Mark founded the church in, and was the first bishop of, Alexandria in Egypt where he was himself killed for the faith by an angry mob, dragged through the streets by a rope around his neck. Some have believed he was the person who fled from the scene of Jesus arrest in Gethsemane: “Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked” (Mark 14:51-52 New American Bible).
Still others believe that the gospel was written nowhere near Rome at all, but rather during, or in the immediate aftermath of, the First Jewish-Roman War, which culminated in the conquest of Jerusalem, the burning of its Temple, and the deaths of as many as a million Jews between the years of A.D. 66 and 70. Placing the composition of the gospel close to the setting of that massively destructive war means Mark was an anonymous Christian, writing perhaps in Galilee, at a great distance from Rome. In any case, it seems that the name “Mark” was not attributed to the author of the gospel until sometime in the second century, decades after its presumed composition, thus complicating the picture even more.
So, who was Saint Mark? We do not know. When and where did he write? We do not know. Does our inability to answer these questions have an effect on our understanding the gospel’s message? Not really.
Saint Mark, whoever he was and whenever and wherever he wrote, told the story of Jesus to encourage members of his community to remain faithful despite their persecution and suffering: “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 8:38 NAB). It is clear from several passages in the gospel that persecution was a serious threat to Mark’s community; even torture may have been faced by some of its members: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into…the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:4 NAB). The passage goes on to warn that losing eye or foot is not too high a price to pay to enter into life and so avoid apostasy, the “shame” of denying Jesus Christ, causing the “little ones” (9:42) to sin by encouraging the same denial on their part.
Being Christian in Mark’s time and place, whether in Rome or near Jerusalem, was a life-threatening condition. And, indeed, it continues to be for Christians throughout the Middle East, some countries in Africa and other places where Christians suffer for their faith: they pay the same cost known to Mark’s community for the same faith in Jesus Christ: flight, torture, death. But the experience of the Risen Jesus Christ alive in Mark’s community and its love for him and one another was the source of their great courage in a terrible time.
That same young man who ran naked from the Garden unexpectedly appears again at the gospel’s conclusion (16:5), where, dressed in white as one newly baptized, he proclaims the resurrection to the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning: “He has been raised; he is not here….he is going before you to Galilee, there you will see him, as he told you.” (Mark 16:7 NAB)
The faith that Jesus will indeed be reunited with his disciples continues to inspire faithfulness in those places where Christians suffer today. May that same faith inspire us to help our brothers and sisters both with prayer and material aid that we too, joined with them at the last, will be among the elect whom the angels will gather from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.*
*See Mark13: 27.
Photos from Wikimedia Commons