As the new church or liturgical year begins this Advent Sunday so we shall begin this year the cycle of readings from the Gospel of St Mark. St Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four and is accepted by most scholars as being the earliest. The consensus is that it was probably written just before or after 70AD because of the reference to the destruction of the Temple in Mk 13:2, which can be accurately dated to that year.
It is also generally accepted that when Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels they probably had some form of Mark’s Gospel before them. It would seem that Matthew and Luke also had other material they could draw from so their Gospels are longer than Mark. However, this does not tell the full story because often Mark’s actual accounts of the events he is describing, his narratives, are longer than Matthew and Luke. Mark often gives us more detail. Another key difference is that Mark’s overall Gospel feels much more “pacey” or immediate. As Mark connects one event to another he often uses the words “and immediately” as we rush on to the next story he has to give us.
So St Mark’s style is one predominantly of narratives which are vivid and detailed, and through this story-telling he conveys his key message or theology.
St Mark consistently uses groups of characters in his Gospel focussing especially on how they respond and react to Jesus. There are three main character groups: the Scribes and Pharisees; the Crowd; and the Disciples. The first group, the Scribes and Pharisees, are consistently negative towards Jesus and are usually pictured as murmuring or questioning in a hostile way. Secondly, the Crowd, are nearly always “amazed” at Jesus or have “never seen anything like this”. However, it is important to perceive, particularly in understanding Mark’s Gospel that this is all that they are. Their amazement or wonderment takes them no further and once Jesus has entered Jerusalem before his death they all dissipate and do not respond any further. Thirdly, the Disciples, follow but are pictured throughout as devoid of understanding. The Disciples are totally lacking comprehension and at times Jesus is portrayed by Mark as getting increasingly frustrated with them!
Unlike the other Gospels, Mark gives us no introduction. He plunges us straight in. It is a little like the curtain going up at the theatre and there on the stage is the main character about who we have no prior knowledge! It is possible though to read and understand the whole of the Gospel as the Introduction or an Overture. The first verse says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ”, and this might well be the title of the whole Gospel.
Throughout the Gospel there is also the strange theme of Jesus performing a miracle or healing in front of a vast crowd of people and then sternly warning them not to say anything to anyone (eg Mk 1:43). This is complimented, too, with the deeply enigmatic ending where the women go to the tomb, find it empty, and despite instructions to go and tell, they run away silent, afraid, and say nothing to anyone. Mark is almost teasing us with the question “will the Women do what the both the Crowd and the Disciples have failed to do?” And it would seem that Mark is posing this question knowing that in the end they must have said something to someone or we wouldn’t know about it now! Irony runs through many parts of the Gospel.
St Mark’s narratives are filled with descriptions of how the various characters respond to Jesus. Each, in their own way, get it wrong. The Scribes and Pharisees moan and criticise. The Crowd, for all their amazement, go home and do nothing. The Disciples follow but comprehension defeats them. The Women are too afraid, well at least initially.
St Mark has given us his beginning, his Gospel, to pose the question to us “How will you respond?” for he is inviting us to respond differently. As the young man at the tomb says “Do not be amazed; you see Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell.”
Your friend and parish priest