Fr Adrian Graffy explores the extraordinary talent of the first evangelist in an article for Faith Today.
The year 2012 sees the return of the Gospel according to Mark as the Gospel we read on ordinary Sundays of the year. Previously seen as a ‘cinderella’ among the Gospels, it is now overwhelmingly recognised as the first to be written and as the Gospel which provided the basis on which Matthew and Luke wrote their own accounts. Mark is no longer understood as the abbreviator of Matthew (an opinion defended in the fifth century by the great St Augustine of Hippo and held as true until modern times), but as the genius who devised the form of writing we call ‘gospel’.
The Council document Dei Verbum provides very helpful teaching on how the gospels developed. The good news was of course first and foremost proclaimed orally, and was only subsequently written down by the gospel writers. Mark may have been using both oral traditions and material already recorded in written form such as miracle stories and teachings. Mark made the inspired choice to produce a brief, continuous narrative which climaxed with the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was left to Matthew and Luke, and to John in an entirely different style, to augment the story and incorporate other traditions emanating both from the memory of the first preachers and from their reflection on the person and life of Jesus.
Mark’s most significant contribution was to devise a simple way of telling the story, a way which brought out the crucial importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. These fundamental facts lay at the heart of the oral tradition. ‘You put him to death, but God raised him up!’ is the summary of the gospel repeatedly heard in the Acts of the Apostles, but also central to the understanding of St Paul. Mark begins his Gospel with the meeting of John the Baptist and Jesus. As he narrates the baptism in the river Jordan Mark emphasises his central Christological statements: Jesus is both ‘Son of God’ and ‘Servant of God’. ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.’ (1:11)
Jesus is described by John the Baptist as the ‘stronger one’ (1:7), for he is able to vanquish the power and strength of Satan and demolish the fortress of evil in the world. As the story progresses we learn from the ‘mighty deeds’ of Jesus, which we call miracles, how the power of Satan is challenged. Jesus is also the preacher of the parables of the kingdom, by which those who are openhearted can be led on to deeper truth. Mark gathers most of the parables he presents into one speech in chapter four, presaging in particular the style of Matthew, who will gather separate teachings of Jesus into significant speeches.
The disciples, called at the very start of the story, are slow to understand in this Gospel. Mark does not shrink from describing them as ‘hard of heart’ (6:52). Then in Chapter 8 Peter is inspired to proclaim Jesus as the Christ. This significant statement echoes the very first verse of the Gospel. Nevertheless, Peter’s agenda is very different from that of Jesus. His reaction to Jesus’ ensuing words about torture and death is understandable but it shows his lack of insight about the way Jesus will have to follow.
The so-called ‘passion predictions’ in chapters 8, 9 and 10 punctuate the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, the place of crucifixion and resurrection. It is a fine touch of Mark that he narrates only one journey of Jesus to the holy city where prophets are put to death, and thus emphasises that the whole mission of Jesus is to give his life for others.
The disciples struggle with his words about his fate. Each time he speaks of it they are found wanting, distracted into other things, attracted by status, and unable to face the painful truth. Mark’s emphasis on the journey to the cross not only stresses the single-mindedness of Jesus and the difficulties of the disciples, but also instructs the persecuted church for whom Mark writes that the way of Jesus is their way also. It is a hard way, but ultimately it is the way to life.
Mark’s gospel has been described as ‘a passion narrative with an introduction’. This is true to the extent that the sparseness of this Gospel by comparison with Matthew and Luke allows us to see very clearly the central truths of death and resurrection. Other evangelists will provide more detail of the teaching and miracles of Jesus. In chapters 14-15, in which the events leading up to the death of Jesus are narrated, Mark fearlessly portrays the human suffering of Christ. He is the one who is terrified in the garden (14:33). He is the one who is abandoned by all (14:50). While the disciples had initially left everything to follow him, now the naked young man leaves everything to get away from him (14:52).
Mark’s narrative of the crucifixion is punctuated by the times of day. Jesus is crucified at the third hour, and there is darkness over the whole earth from the sixth to the ninth hour. Mark records only one ‘word’ of Jesus on the cross, the anguished cry of ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (15:34) While other evangelists will soften the picture, Mark is committed to portraying the human anguish of the Son of God.
The ending of Mark is curious and controversial. It appears most likely that the Gospel ended with the story of the discovery of the empty tomb. Additions were made to the text of Mark which contain references to the appearances of Jesus narrated in other Gospels. One such addition led to the canonical verses 9 to 20. The most plausible explanation of this curious situation is that Mark considered the discovery of the empty tomb to be sufficient demonstration of the truth of the resurrection.
Mark’s final words recount how the women fled from the tomb in panic and that ‘they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid’ (16:8). Mark’s Christian readers knew that this was not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new chapter, in which Christians would follow the path to life first followed by Jesus.