After the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus until Ash Wednesday we read at Mass from the first 8 chapters of the Gospel of Mark, describing Jesus ministry in Galilee. This year Mark’s Gospel is also read most Sundays.
Mark’s Gospel makes no mention of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem or events surrounding it but begins the story of Jesus with his baptism in the Jordan River by John. As Jesus comes from the waters, the heavens open; the Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove and “A voice came from the heavens, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”
Others after being baptized in the Jordan continued up the road to Jerusalem and its temple, but in Mark’s Gospel Jesus does not. Led by the Spirit, he remains in the Judean desert and is tempted by the devil for 40 days– a prelude to what he faces in Galilee and later in Jerusalem. After 40 days, Jesus takes the road north along the Jordan River to the Sea of Galilee and the rich farmlands that surround it.
For the first 8 chapters of his gospel, Mark describes Jesus teaching and performing miracles in the heavily populated towns around the lake, in the Jewish towns first, then in the gentile region.
Over the centuries, Mark’s gospel never received the attention given to the gospels of Matthew, John or Luke. Mark was a simple synopsis of Matthew’s gospel, earlier commentators thought. Commentators today recognize Mark as the first gospel to be written and a gospel that tells the story of Jesus through simple, powerful symbols.
Mark’s Gospel, for example, begins the story of Jesus in the waters of the Jordan River, where he is revealed as God’s beloved Son on whom the Spirit rests. The Jordan is a sacred river. Water, blessed by the Spirit, is a recurring image throughout the 8 chapters of Mark’s gospel. It marks the progress of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.
“As he passed by the Sea of Galilee,” Jesus calls some fishermen, Simon, his brother Andrew, James and his brother John, to come after him, “and I will make you fishers of men.” They are witnesses who will draw others to Jesus. (Mark 1, 16-19)
After two exciting days in Capernaum, Jesus’ ministry expands: ‘Once again he went out along the sea. All the crowd came to him and he taught them. As he passed by, he saw Levi, son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.” (Mark 2:13-14) Growing numbers gather, by the sea, and Jesus adds Matthew, an outsider, to be among his immediate followers.
Ever growing crowds, now from gentile areas as well as Jewish, come to him by the sea. “Jesus withdrew toward the sea with his disciples. A large number of people [followed] from Galilee and from Judea. Hearing what he was doing, a large number of people came to him also from Jerusalem, from Idumea, from beyond the Jordan, and from the neighborhood of Tyre and Sidon.” (Matthew 3, 7-9)
He teaches in parables, by the sea. “On another occasion he began to teach by the sea. A very large crowd gathered around him so that he got into a boat on the sea and sat down. And the whole crowd was beside the sea on land. And he taught them at length in parables.” (Matthew 4, 1-2 )
The sea is more than a geographic reference in Mark’s Gospel. The Spirit is moving in its waters, drawing more and more to Jesus, God’s Son. John Donahue SJ, in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Liturgical Press, 2002) sees the various crossings of the Sea of Galilee by Jesus and his disciples as symbolic. Sailing from the western side of the sea, largely Jewish, to the eastern side, largely gentile, they bring the gospel to gentiles and well as Jews. The storms at sea are more than historic storms; one sees in them the fear and challenges that inevitably must be faced if the gospel is to be brought to others.(Mark 6:45-52)
The journeys Jesus takes with his disciples to Tyre and Sidon, seaports on the Mediterranean Sea, are more than historical markers. Healing the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man there, both gentiles, Jesus indicates that the gospel must be brought over the seas to the gentiles at ends of the earth. ( Mark 7:24-37)
Jesus multiplies bread on both sides of the sea in Mark’s Gospel. The gentiles are to be fed and blessed as well as Jews. (Mark 6:31-44; Mark 8:1-10)
In chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples cross the Jordan to go up to Judea and Jerusalem. (Mark 10:1) They cross the sacred river marking the boundary to the Promised Land, where Jesus will suffer and die and rise again.
Beginning his gospel with the Baptism of Jesus, Mark reminds us that Jesus comes into our world as God’s beloved Son, led and accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit. Water is a significant sign of God’s presence. Entering the waters of the world, Jesus blessed them. We who are baptized in water are called to follow him and listen to him.
Mark’s Gospel reminds us through the symbol of water that we grow in faith, as individuals and as a world. The Spirit is poured out, gradually but surely. We grow in understanding, gradually but surely. The world itself receives the message, gradually but surely.
Mark’s Gospel reveals the power of God, but more than the other gospels the weakness and incomprehension of his followers. Over and over, Mark notes they did not understand. Not only do Pharisees, scribes and Herodians, the followers of Herod Antiphas, not understand, but his own disciples, members of his family do not understand. And neither do we. But still, the water flows, softening, cleansing, strengthening, giving new life.
Mark’s Gospel has been called an extended story of the Passion of Jesus. It was written, many commentators says, to support Roman Christians caught in Nero’s persecution in the mid 60s, a persecution that shook the early church without warning, causing many to be betrayed and killed. Mark depicts the absurd suffering Jesus experienced and his betrayal by his own followers, especially Peter, the apostle.
Our readings from Mark end before Ash Wednesday.