A Sermon Preached at Choral Evensong by Mrs Sue Whitley on the Feast of St Mark
Psalm 19, Isaiah 52 v. 7-10, Mark 1 v. 1-15
One way or another, between Advent last year and Easter Sunday this, we’ve had the whole story. From Christ’s humble birth in a stable in Nazareth to his death and resurrection at Jerusalem. And though the Old Testament has its prophetic contributions to make (witness tonight’s reading from Isaiah: ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of Him that brings good tidings’), the story is mainly told in the four gospels.
Which makes it easy to overlook the fact that Mark, whose Saint’s Day falls on the 25 April and whose gospel is generally agreed to be the earliest, tells us nothing at all about Jesus’ birth or upbringing and ends abruptly with an empty tomb. So although Matthew and Luke drew heavily on Mark, giving the illusion that they were all singing from the same Christ-like hymn sheet, Mark has a rather different tale to tell. He’s out there on his own. Like John the Baptist, perhaps, with whom his narrative begins.
Maybe it doesn’t matter too much whether Mark was the John Mark, cousin of Barnabas, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, or an amalgam of several Marks (Hippolytus of Rome distinguishes between Mark the Evangelist, John Mark of the Acts and Mark cousin of Barnabas). What does matter is where he was coming from. According to the church father Eusebius, Herod Agrippa 1, in AD 41, the year of his accession, killed James, son of Zebedee, who thus became the first martyr among the apostles. He arrested Peter at the same time and the plan was to kill him too after the Passover; but angels miraculously sprung him from prison, and Peter set off from Antioch through Asia Minor. He met Mark on the road and Mark then served him as companion, interpreter and recorder. No better way, you could argue, to gather up the jumble of stories, memories and anecdotes about Jesus and put them in some sort of biographical order. Tradition has it that it was around AD 49 when Mark’s journeyings took him to Alexandria in Egypt, where he founded a church.
Any visitor to Venice, of which St Mark is the patron saint, will know the story of how his bones were eventually ‘looted’ and brought by boat from Alexandria, hidden under a cargo of pork to deter any interference from Muslim officialdom. Mark is everywhere in Venice, along with his lion and the lion’s open book, ‘Peace be to you, Mark my evangelist’. And it is somehow appropriate that Mark’s gospel should begin with John the Baptist – ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’, like the roaring of a lion.
Baptism was not part of the normal Jewish ceremonial washing ceremonies – had it been, then calling John ‘the Baptist’ would not have distinguished him in any way. Baptism was a way of bringing gentiles into the fold, and those, perhaps, who felt they had strayed too far from the Jewish God. With John, Baptism became a call to the people to prepare for the Messiah’s coming. And that is how Mark chooses to begin his story.
According to Nick Cave, Australian lead singer of a band called ‘The Bad Seeds’ and a long-term devotee of the Old Testament (he said that in his youth it spoke to the part of him that ‘railed and hissed and spat at the world’), he was persuaded to read Mark’s gospel by an Anglican vicar. His knowledge of Jesus had, until that moment, come from being a choirboy in Wangarafter Cathedral, and Christ, to him, seemed rather wet. When Nick Cave asked why he should read it, the vicar replied: ‘Because it’s short.’ So he did, and was swept up immediately into a narrative intensity that he’d never experienced before. He says: ‘One is reminded of a child recounting some amazing tale, piling fact upon fact as if the whole work depended on it, which of course to Mark it did.’ Everything happens, ‘straightway’ and ‘immediately’ (the Greek word for immediately, euthos, occurs 41 times in Mark’s gospel). Everyone runs, and shouts, and is amazed. The raw economy with which he describes scenes of great tragedy and the headlong rush of the narrative leave us breathless with shock and awe.
Within those first few paragraphs Jesus materialises, is baptized by John, visited by the Holy Spirit descending on Him like a dove, claimed by God as his Beloved Son – ‘in whom I am well pleased’ – and promptly packed off into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. There is no reassuring youthful context so we can tell ourselves he’s just like us. He’s never like us from the moment he bursts on the scene until his terrible death, and the drama of it all is overwhelming. Right from the start we are part of Christ’s ‘otherness’ – his aloneness, the wilderness of his soul (never mind ours), and the realisation that his teachings of love and wisdom will be in turn misunderstood, rebuffed, ignored, vilified until, eventually, they are the death of him. The story that unfolds is not the triumph of God’s kingly envoy on earth, but the triumph of a man despised and rejected of men. In the aftermath of Easter, even knowing what we now know to be true, the cry that haunts us still is ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani’ – My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me.
Mark only has 16 chapters, and verses 9-20 of the last chapter (in my King James Version) have evidently been added later. The original ending finds the women at the tomb, where they have gone to anoint the body with spices and found the stone rolled away. A young man in white tells them that Christ is risen and has gone before them into Galilee and bids them tell the disciples. Instead, they run away terrified and say nothing. Of course, it was more than flesh and blood could stand to leave the mystery of the empty tomb unexplained, and a few ‘appearances’ were added later. But what I love about Mark is that he himself never intrudes on the staggering drama that is his story of Jesus: reading it again I can not only understand Nick Cave’s love and admiration for the man he found in Marks’ gospel, I can relate wholeheartedly to it. Mark’s Jesus is a man in a hurry. He doesn’t ask us to cower endlessly in front of him, regretting our unworthiness, but lifts us up, inviting us passionately to live: but to live in His name. Perhaps it is no accident that the signature song of ‘The Bad Seeds’ is called ‘The Mercy Seat’.
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