April 25th is the Feast of St. Mark, author of one of the gospels. We may forget that real people wrote the gospels, but the medieval portrait above shows the evangelist real enough as he adjusts his spectacles and pours over a book, surely his gospel. A lion looks up at him, the powerful voice of God.
He’s an old man, his eyes are going, He has to be old if he’s a disciple of Peter, as tradition claims. (cf. 1 Peter 5:14) Mark’s gospel appears shortly before or after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. If he’s the author of the gospel, as it’s said, he’s in his 70s at least.
He may have written his account in Rome, where he came with Peter, who calls Mark in his 1st Letter “my son.” In 64 AD, Roman Christians experienced a vicious persecution at the hands of the Emperor Nero. Peter and Paul died in that persecution. For years afterwards, Christian survivors were still asking themselves, no doubt, why it happened.
They say Mark wrote his gospel in answer to that dreadful experience. He would have heard Peter’s witness to Jesus many times; he knows his story.
Yet Mark was not just a stenographer repeating Peter’s eyewitness account; he’s adapted the apostle’s story, adding material and insights he had gathered on his own. For a long time Mark’s gospel was neglected by the church, thought to be simply a synopsis of Matthew’s gospel. Today scholars admire it for its simplicity and masterful story telling. It’s the first gospel written and Matthew and Luke derive much of their material from it.
I like the wonderful commentary: The Gospel of Mark, in the Sacra Pagina series from Liturgical Press, by John Donohue,SJ and Daniel Harrington, SJ (Collegeville, Min. 2002). A great guide to this gospel and its rich message. We read Mark in the lectionary from the Feast of Baptism of Jesus up to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
Mark’s Gospel offers a unique wisdom. It does not flinch before the mystery of suffering and does not try to explain it away. There’s a darkness about this gospel that makes it applicable to times like ours. We’re disciples of Jesus who must follow him, no matter what.
Our gospel for the feast is the final commission Jesus gives to his disciples, according to Mark.
“Go into the whole world
and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved;
whoever does not believe will be condemned.
These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Like Jesus, his disciples will drive out demons and speak new languages. They’ll pick up serpents and drink poison, yet be unharmed. They will even believe, without understanding everything. In answer to Jesus’ command, tradition says Mark went to Egypt and founded the church in Alexandria.