Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Gospel According To Saint Mark: A Sunday Rumination

My parish, Saint Louis de Montfort in Sound Beach, enjoys the occasional services of a remarkable priest: Father Edward Kealey, until recently the pastor of Saint Sylvester’s in Medford. Father Ed combines an exceptional talent for homiletics with deep scholarship and a degree of intellectual excitement about Christianity and its history that’s rare even among the most dedicated clerics. All of that and more comes through in his sermons. Today’s sermon was one of the most illuminating yet.

Father Ed spoke of the Gospeler most neglected by Church historians over the centuries: Saint Mark, sometimes referred to in the New Testament as John Mark. Mark’s mother, whose name is apparently lost to history, owned the property on which the Last Supper was celebrated. Mark himself was a companion at various times to Saints Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, in his later years presided as Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, and was eventually arrested and beheaded as a martyr for Christ.

One of the questions about the Gospels that’s recurred over the centuries is why three of them – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are so similar in the events they recount, despite the time intervals between their creations. Some classical scholars have proposed that there’s a common source behind them all: a shadowy figure sometimes denominated by “Q” who supplied the narration of those events to those three Gospelers. Yet Mark himself had at least brushing contact with the rest of the Twelve around the time of the Passion, was a companion to Saint Peter while the two were in Rome, and wrote the earliest of all four of the Gospels: the only one of the three greatly similar ones certain to have been produced in the First Century A.D. Thus, it is likely that Mark’s Gospel derives from knowledge of Jesus’s life and ministry conferred upon him by Saint Peter – and that Mark himself was “Q,” the source for Matthew and Luke, whose Gospels date to well after the events all three relate.

Yet for centuries Mark’s Gospel has been treated as the least important of the Big Three. Strange.

Over the centuries men have searched for more documents from the time of Christ. Numerous candidates have come forth, perhaps the best known being the scrolls of Nag Hammadi. The overarching desire is to find something written by Jesus Himself, or, failing that, a transcription of His exact words by a source other than “Q” that would confirm, at least in substance, the things He preached. Yet the Redeemer was explicit that there was no need for Him to write:

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” – Matthew 24:35

In reflecting on the post-Resurrection careers of Peter, Paul, Mark, Barnabas, and the other Apostles and early evangelists, I am perpetually amazed by their willing, uncomplaining acceptance of lives of hard labor, endless travel, and for nearly all, condemnation and execution for their faith. Those who deride Christianity as implausible can’t cope with that degree of dedication; it baffles them that any man would devote himself to such trials “for a fairy tale.” Yet if anyone needs evidence that the Redeemer did indeed walk among men, that he suffered, died, and rose from the dead in fulfillment of the promises of all the earlier Judaic prophets, what better evidence could there be?

Saint Mark never met Jesus in the flesh. His contact with the Twelve was as a young teenager, through his mother and his subsequent enlistment in the evangelical mission of the newborn Church. His role in the New Testament is far more muted than those of Peter and Paul. Yet he appears to have undergone hardships and trials at least the equal of theirs. He surrendered his life for his faith just as they did. Finally, we might have him to thank for three-fourths of the canonically accepted Gospels.

Who can confidently deride the dedication of such a man? Who can say, without any doubt whatsoever, that the mission to which Mark gave his life and his death – just as with Paul, Barnabas, and all the rest of the Twelve except for Saint John – was a fairy tale?

Not I.

Among the things that Father Ed had to say about Saint Mark, he noted the optimism that infuses his Gospel. Mark treats even the death of Jesus as a moment in which to exult, for which to give thanks, for it was in that moment that the sins of all Mankind became remissible – according to a former seminarian of my acquaintance, the moment in which they were actually remitted from one end of Time to the other. The other Gospels are more somber in their treatment of the Passion, preferring to reserve any sense of celebration for the Resurrection and Ascension that followed. To Mark, it’s all of a piece: a single, indivisible event in the Mind of God.

Christians are often exhorted to hope – to think of ourselves as “the people of hope.” Yet in the days between the Passion and the Resurrection even the Twelve must have had their doubts that all would ultimately be well. The Gospel According To Saint Mark, the “gospel of the year” at this point in the three-year liturgical cycle, can remind us of the indivisibility of the Divine Plan, the true and inexorable justification for all three of the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Even the agony of His Son’s mortal form on the cross in the cruelest form of execution known to that time was a component of that Plan. We have Mark to tell us...and perhaps to thank for telling Matthew and Luke as well.

May God bless and keep you all.


Anonymous said...

How very strange, I just clicked off a page where I was researching the historicity of Jesus, and the role the Synoptic gospels play in our knowledge of it, and I come upon this.

I'm sorry to have to say that I'm not a believer, but I am interested in the intent of the Bible, which I believe is to promote a moral life. And despite potential appearances, I do support Christian morals and values and have no intent to dissuade others, although some might categorize my support as blind.

The things that I suppose bother me most about Jesus and the apostles, and you can take this as the dead-end of my lack of faith rather than an argument, but it's the seeming over-willingness of Jesus to "lead" us, the seeming over-eagerness of the apostles as the initial "followers", and even through the lesson of Thomas -- what? -- I am supposed to believe, because I am told that someone else who didn't believe was won over? I have an extremely hard time with all this, because as a fiercely independent individual, I do not want to follow anyone, I do not want anyone to presume to lead me, and I do not trust the apostle's inexplicable eagerness in these things. Yes, I know the afterlife argument, redemption, all that. Can't be done alone, yes, I know. But again, in the self-professed dead-end of my thankfully-moral outlook, I find the unsolicited "help" more than a little annoying. Of course, the lack of a belief in a higher power doesn't help.

So I wonder, with all due respect, what is it about Jesus and the apostles that is so appealing to people who are strong-willed and independent, in light of the fact that life truly is just EXTREMELY DIFFICULT? Is it just too much to accept that life might actually be meaningless, aside from our actions and treatment of others during our short stay here, and that avoidance of hedonism might amount to nothing more than pointless denial of gratification? I ask this in good-faith, not as a challenge, but as something that I find myself truly incapable of grasping.

Tim Turner said...

"Is it just too much to accept that life might actually be meaningless, aside from our actions and treatment of others during our short stay here, and that avoidance of hedonism might amount to nothing more than pointless denial of gratification?"

There it is. I'm 64 and I REALLY KNOW I could have done better. I lie (lay?) awake at night regretting the wrongs I've done.

But I think about it, and realize, even if I was resurrected to this great advantage I've had, I'd probably - almost certainly! - make the same selfish, short-sighted choices.

I want, and in a deep yearning way, NEED to believe in something. I KNOW I'm smart. I understand and have read history and kind of "know" about human nature.

And I really, really hope that there's more to all this than just that we "get" the ideas behind the 10 commandments. Because here we are and - to my mind - we have the best-educated, most informed people ever, and look what's happening.

Things are worse. And getting worse.

If you look at this place, It *IS* "too much to accept that life might actually be meaningless, aside from our actions and treatment of others during our short stay here, and that avoidance of hedonism might amount to nothing more than pointless denial of gratification."

If faith makes a difference, yay, faith!

Choose: 1)life is meaningless, except for personal actions; or, 2)life is faith, based on a moral precept that fits with your own personal and family values. OR, 3)the Christians and Jews are onto something.

1) is MSNBC and Rachel Maddow. 2) sounds good, but Muslims have values and sit by while people commit atrocities in the name of their "religion."

3) is how most of us over 30 were brought up and what helped make the civilization we know strong, mostly just, and optimistic.

There's something in "3" to believe in.

Anonymous said...

Tim, fantastic and honest response, thank you. Yes, this is why I went from Catholic, to militant atheist, to what I am now, which is a personal disbeliever, but an advocate of belief in others. Sometimes the appearance of eager belief in others makes me wonder, makes me question, but my underlying desire is for a moral society, and so I remember that it's best to keep my mouth shut. And I mean this very earnestly. My concern is not with the eager believers, although they cause me to question, my concern is with the marginal believers (and of course the militant atheists) who NEED some sort of moral code, and the underlying framework to make it valid for them.

"we have the best-educated, most informed people ever, and look what's happening"

When I am reminded of this, I realize that I have already said too much.

For those of us who disbelieve and yet somehow manage to keep it on the straight-and-narrow, questions of faith are best kept to ourselves (myself). People's Judeo-Christian faith, even eager and excited faith, is not the problem, not by a longshot. The problem is the eager and thoughtless "seizure of gratification" at the expense of others, that happens a million times a day, in a million small and not-so-small ways.

Please forgive me for my first response, I know the answers, at least as they apply to me. I need to do a better job of keeping my personal problems to myself. And thank you, Fran, for your initial post, that has led to this reinforcement for me. Peace be with you.