Mark 1, 7-11- Mark 8, 14-21
After the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus we read at Mass from the first 8 chapters of the Gospel of Mark until Ash Wednesday.
Mark’s Gospel makes no mention of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem but begins with the story of his baptism in the Jordan River. Then he describes his miracles and teaching in the towns around the Sea of Galilee– the Jewish towns first, then in the gentile region. Then he goes up to Jerusalem and his death and resurrection.
Until recently, Mark’s Gospel received little attention compared to the gospels of Matthew, John or Luke. It was hardly read in the liturgy. Early commentators thought Mark was simply a synopsis of Matthew’s Gospel. Commentators today, however, recognize Mark’s Gospel as the first to be written and appreciate the powerful way it tells the story of Jesus. It’s not just a simple portrayal of historical facts or a synopsis of Matthew. It’s rich in symbolism.
Mark’s Gospel, for example, begins in the waters of the Jordan River, where Jesus is called God’s beloved Son on whom the Spirit rests. Water is a recurring image in Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry.
John Donahue SJ, a recent commentator on the Gospel of Mark (Liturgical Press, 2002) , points out the symbolic nature of the various events in Jesus’ ministry around the Sea of Galilee. As the Spirit rested on the waters of the Jordan, so does the Spirit stir these waters, drawing more and more to Jesus, God’s Son. Crossing from its western to its eastern side – from a side largely Jewish to a side largely gentile – Jesus and his disciples bring the gospel to gentiles as well as Jews.
The storms Jesus and his disciples face on the sea are more than historic storms; they symbolize the fearful challenge and rejection to be faced in bringing the gospel to others. (Mark 6:45-52)
“As he passed by the Sea of Galilee,” Jesus calls some fishermen, Simon, his brother Andrew, James and his brother John. He makes them “ fishers of men.” (Mark 1, 16-19) Along the sea, Jesus teaches the crowds in parables.
The journeys of Jesus and his disciples to Tyre and Sidon, seaports on the Mediterranean Sea, are more than historical markers. The Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man, both gentiles healed there, are signs 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 of Galilee in Mark’s Gospel. The gentiles are to be fed and blessed as well as Jews. (Mark 6:31-44; Mark 8:1-10)
The Spirit moves in the waters of the Jordan, the Sea of Galilee and the waters beyond yet, as Mark’s Gospel indicates repeatedly, the Jewish leaders, the pharisees, scribes, Herodians, members of his own family, his disciples, do not understand. Neither do we.
Still, the Spirit works through the waters, softening, cleansing, strengthening, giving new life.
Our readings from Mark end on Ash Wednesday.