St Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four Gospels, and perhaps for that reason, and because much of the material it contains is in the other Gospels, was the subject of fewer Patristic studies; as those of you kind enough to read and comment on my selections from the Fathers may recall, last year, when the Gospel for the lectionary was that of St Mark, it was sometimes hard going to find enough to make a decent post. But in some ways the neglect of Mark is odd.
If, as the Church holds, Mark was the follower of Peter, who is mentioned by St Peter, and is identical with the John mark of whom we read in the Acts of the Apostles, and his account is based on Peter’s teaching, then the form of the Gospel makes perfect sense. The short and sharp nature of the stories, with the punch line, work very well as homilies; we may, here, have some of St Peter’s own preaching. We cannot be sure of Mark’s exact role, but we can see from the final form of his Gospel that he has crafted a set of wonderful examples of what the Good News is and why it matters. If we envisage the Gospel as circulating, like Paul’s letters, throughout the churches of the Mediterranean world, we are probably not far from realising its original intention and context. It would certainly explain why, despite not being a first-person account, and being so short, it got such an immediate hearing from Christians.
It is difficult to be certain of Mark’s identity, but there is a clue in his account of the passion. In mentioning Simon the Cyrenian, he mentions his sons, ‘Alexander and Rufinus’ in a way which assumes his hearer knew who they were. The ‘John Mark’ in Acts is a friend of Barnabas, who was a wealthy merchant from Cyprus, who would have been part of that great network of trading settlements across the Mediterranean region, and it seems likely that in the mention of Alexander and Rufinus, we have members of a trading family who Mark’s readers would have known; it is difficult to account for their being mentioned otherwise. It would also make sense of Mark’s association with Alexandria (where he is said to have founded the Egyptian Church), which had a huge Jewish population involved in trade.
If we posit a Mark who had worked with Peter and Paul, who is writing in the aftermath of their deaths and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in A.D> 70, we get some sense of why he wrote and why his message is so urgent. His portrait of Jesus draws us directly into a relationship with him; we understand why he changed Mark’s life and Peter’s life, and so many lives; we want him to change our life too. History has been changed, and the challenge for us is clear – if we are changed, then nothing will be the same again. God attests to His Son, the demons protest, the world is utterly changed by Jesus – and we will be too.
Mark’s Gospel calls us to repentance and to the knowledge that the kingdom of God is at hand, and on this, his feast day, we acknowledge his message remains as urgent now as it was when Peter first heard the Lord deliver it.