‘Truly this man was the Son of God’
This morning we are focusing our attention on the second of the four gospels – that of St. Mark. We’re going to begin with a brief look at the man who wrote it, his writing style and his characterization before finishing with something to consider for ourselves.
So St Mark the writer of the second gospel is also referred to in the New Testament as John Mark.
Historical sources reveal that both he and his mother, Mary, were highly esteemed in the early Church. Indeed his mother's house in Jerusalem served as a meeting place for Christians there.
During his life St Mark was associated with St Paul and St Barnabas (who was his cousin) travelling with them on their missionary journey which took them to the island of Cyprus. Later he accompanied St Barnabas alone. We know also that he was in Rome with St Peter and St Peter. Tradition indicates that he was one of the servants who brought water for Jesus at the miracle of Canaan in Galilee and that he was the young man who runs away naked when Jesus is arrested in the garden of Gethsemane. Tradition also ascribes to him the founding of the Church in Alexandria.
St Mark probably wrote his Gospel, the first to be written, in Rome some time before 67AD; he wrote it in Greek with his intended readership being the Gentile converts to Christianity. Mark writes his gospel at a time of vicious persecution for the Christians in Rome. Tradition strongly suggests that his gospel is based on the teachings of St Peter. This seems to be confirmed by the prominent position that St Peter occupies in Mark's Gospel. It is believed therefore that his Gospel is a record of the life of Jesus as seen through the eyes of St Peter the Prince of the Apostles
Mark’s is a very vivid gospel and his style of writing enables us to feel that we are actually present at the scene of events. He achieves this effect by slipping from past to present tense, a technique he uses some 150 times in his gospel. He includes also includes irrelevant but nonetheless interesting detail which brings the story to life – for example we read that Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat in Mark 4:38 and in the feeding of the 5,000 that the people sat in groups on the green grass.
In the first chapter of the original Greek version he uses the word ‘and’ 75 times within the space of 40 verses, with most of them occurring at the beginning of a sentence. His gospel also moves along at a breathless pace with the word ‘immediately’ being used some 42 times.
Another narrative technique that Mark employs is to use one story to illuminate another. For example the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter is inserted within the story of the healing of the woman with a haemorrhage.
Mark also has a liking for groups of 3. There are 3 predictions of the passion; at the garden of gethsemane Jesus finds his disciples asleep 3 times; Peter denies Jesus 3 times; 3 intervals of 3 hours are narrated in the crucifixion. Mark uses this repetition to convey emphasis and progression with the 3rd and final occurrence in the series revealing a dynamic conclusion.
Finally let’s look briefly at Mark’s characterization of Jesus and the disciples. Like the other evangelists, Mark’s characterization of Jesus underscores his identity as Messiah, Son of God, Lord and Son of Man. Of these titles it is the Son of God that carries for St. Mark the highest Christological significance and he chooses to start his gospel with the words ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ It is interesting to note however that this title ‘Son of God’ is not used again to describe Jesus until he has breathed his last on the cross. Then it is the centurion who says ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’ as he witnesses Jesus die on the cross before him. For Mark then the full meaning of Jesus the Son of God title cannot be fully understood until the cross. For Mark Jesus’ suffering and death were not some unfortunate accident that could have been avoided. For Mark Jesus was the Son of God not in spite of his death but because of it.
In Mark, more so than in any of the other gospels, there is mystery surrounding the figure of Jesus. People wonder who he is and Jesus is reported to tell those who have knowledge of his identity to keep quiet about it. Mark portrays Jesus as having a concern for secrecy – this is true particularly during the period of his Galilean ministry during which time commands of silence are issued, public attention is avoided and seclusion sought by Jesus for both himself and his disciples – He often speaks to them in private. This secrecy theme in Mark probably reflects a genuine historical desire on the part of Jesus that messianic enthusiasm should not undermine His mission. It also demonstrates a theological conviction on the part of Mark that the character of Jesus cannot be fully understood until the events of His death and resurrection have taken place.
This also fits with the portrayal of the disciples as those who do not understand who Jesus is and the irony of the Gospel whose intended readers do know who Jesus is. Of all the evangelists Mark offers perhaps the most uncomplimentary portrait of the disciples. Whilst he acknowledges their positive features he nonetheless chooses to accentuate the negative in drawing attention to the way they fail to understand Jesus’ parables; their lack of faith and their inability to perceive the meaning of the miracles which Jesus performs. Mark tells us they are hard hearted and unable to fulfil the tasks they are given. He records how Jesus rebukes Peter for his unwillingness to accept the need for Jesus’ suffering; he records the betrayal by Judas; he records Peter’s denial and the disciples desertion of Jesus at the crucial moment of his arrest in the garden. Unlike the other evangelists he does not write of their restoration but he does record Jesus prediction that they will see him in Galilee after he has risen from the dead.
Mark ends his gospel with the great commission to go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole of creation which of course is directed towards us as well as those first disciples. It could lead us to ask ourselves how do we in turn bring others to the risen Lord? We need perhaps to consider this question, not in a rhetorical way but with a sense of urgency similar to that expressed by St. Mark the Evangelist in his gospel. But before we can bring others to faith in Jesus Christ we need to have stood at the foot of the cross ourselves and with the centurion be able to say: ‘Truly this man was the Son of God.’