Advent 1B 2005 Mark 13:24-37
Today we begin a new Church Year, the Year of B, the year that our focus is on the Gospel according to Saint Mark. This Gospel
is the earliest and shortest of the four gospels. It is also the strangest and, in some ways, most difficult, in part because
of its brevity. At the same time, most of Mark’s gospel is contained within the gospels according to Saints Matthew
and Luke, and much of Mark is in Saint John’s gospel. There are some modifications of Mark and variations from each
other, according to the purposes for which each of those gospels was written – and according to the needs and situations
faced by their communities. It becomes clear when the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are placed side by side that Matthew
and Luke had a copy of Mark’s Gospel on which they drew extensively: Matthew used 606 of Mark’s 661 verses and
Luke used 350. Between the two, only 24 of Mark’s verses do not appear somewhere in Matthew and Luke.
We owe Saint Mark a lot. He essentially invented the literary form that we know as the good news, the gospels. Nothing in
ancient literature is quite like it. The new age needed, demanded, and brought forth a new literary form to transmit the
good news, the message of salvation, that Jesus brought to humankind. Mark was the first to collect sayings of Jesus from
the oral tradition and place them in a narrative whose context was the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
What we think we know about Mark himself comes in part from a tradition of the church dating from the early Second Century.
This tradition declares that Mark’s gospel was a translation into koine Greek from Aramaic of the teaching and preaching
of Saint Peter in Rome to the Jewish community and Christian community in Rome – the same group to which Saint Paul
wrote his Epistle to the Romans. Saint Peter was martyred – crucified upside down, according to the tradition –
in Rome around 60 A.D. And it is likely that Mark finished his writing sometime in the next few years. Most scholars agree
on a period between 65 and 75 A.D. This dating depends in large part upon the generally accepted later dating of the other
three gospels and because there are allusions in the Markan text to early events of the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 A.D.
The tradition also holds that Mark was the Mark cited in the Acts of the Apostles as the companion of both Peter in Jerusalem
and Rome Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. This was the same Mark who left the two missionaries at Pamphylia
in the middle of this trip. According to the Acts of the Apostles, in a subsequent trip, “Barnabas wanted to take with
them John called Mark. But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied
them in the work. The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away
to Cyprus.” (Acts 15:37-39)
Paul seems to have forgiven Mark during the time Paul was imprisoned in Rome before he was executed. He asked that Mark be
sent to him and apparently Mark and Luke were with Paul during his last days.
In general, Saint Mark leaps right into the heart of the good news. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,
the Son of God.” In a real sense, all Christian belief is founded on that one statement, the basis of all Christian
theology. Said one commentator about Saint Mark’s gospel, “It presents its brief anecdotes with impressive directness
and simplicity and swiftness. Without any preliminary account of Jesus’s birth and childhood, it plunges straight into
the story by introducing John the Baptist and recounting how Jesus came to him for baptism. Then, in quick succession, specimens
are given of what Jesus did and said, of how crowds responded but the religious leaders resented him, and how he trained his
small band of close friends and followers. About two-fifths of the whole book is devoted to the closing days of his life;
and then the narrative breaks off abruptly at the empty tomb.” (1)
There are no shepherds, no angels singing or popping in and out, no stars dancing in the sky, no wise men for Mark. Those
things were irrelevant to what Mark was writing for his community.
Mark writes with urgency and immediacy. There is a breathless air about this gospel. In the Greek this is clearer than in
any English translation. The Greek word kai – for the English conjunction and – is used over and over and over
again to begin sentences, 34 times in the third chapter alone: And then, and when, and next, and because. and so on, the
words coming pell mell, tumbling over themselves one after another like a mountain waterfall. It reads in Greek as if the
Holy Spirit is ripping, pulling, yanking, jerking, forcing the gospel out of Mark by divine brute force in comparison to the
more measured and considered gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John.
There are many important things to remember about the gospel according to Saint Mark as we go through the next year, But
here are only a few:
First, it is the nearest in time to the earthly life of Jesus himself. Mark had the opportunity to collect the eyewitness
accounts of Peter and other disciples who had walked the dusty hills of Galilee with our Lord. Mark may even have known Jesus
himself, but of this we cannot be sure.
Second, Mark never forgot that Jesus was divine. The opening sentence of the gospel, “The beginning of the good news
of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” makes that clear. Mark writes about the awe and astonishment that Jesus inspired in
his disciples and his enemies as well.
Third, Mark provides the most human depiction of Jesus, more than the other three gospels. Mark shows Jesus exhibiting very
human emotions and feelings: anger, huger, thirst, sadness, weeping, joy, love, fatigue, compassion -- much more than Matthew,
Luke, and John.
Fourth, Mark gives us those vivid little details that bring the text to life: the little children “and he took them
up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them”, at the feeding of the Five thousand, “they sat down
in groups of hundreds and of fifties”, at the stilling of the storm, Jesus “was in the stern, asleep on a cushion”,
and only Mark tells us that on his last journey with his disciples “Jesus was walking ahead of them”. (2)
Finally, Mark’s gospel is a call to action. Be alert, Jesus says throughout this gospel. Stay awake. Earth shaking
events are happening. God is walking on the earth. Emmanuel. God is with you. He has come and he will come again.
As we say during every communion after the consecration of the bread and wine at the call to proclaim the mystery of faith:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
This brief litany is exactly what Saint Mark is writing about in his Gospel. Be alert. Stay awake.
1. CFD Moule, The Gospel According to Mark, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible, 1965, p. 2.
2. Ibid; and Malcolm Peel, Adult Bible Studies, Dec 1986-February 1987, pp. 22-24; especially William Barclay, The Gospel
of Mark, Rev. ed., pp. 1-7.