Monday, February 23, 2009

Riveted by Saint Mark’s Gospel

Andrea Mantegna (Isola di Carturo, circa 1431 - Mantua, 1506)
St Mark
1447 - circa 1448
Canvas; H. 82 cm; W. 63.7 cm
Frankfurt, Städelsches Kunstinstitut

Monsignor Roderick Strange, the Rector of the Pontifical Beda College, Rome, recently wrote about reading the Gospel of St Mark.

"Almost thirty years ago I spent a memorable night at the Oxford Playhouse. The stage was bare except for a table and chair. As the performance began, Alec McCowen walked on and placed a copy of the King James’ Bible on the table, in case, he remarked with self-deprecating humour, he forgot his lines. And then he began to recite the Gospel according to St Mark. It was spellbinding. We may be familiar with much of the text, but probably from hearing passages read out in church, as they will often be this year; but to hear the text whole was another experience altogether.

More recently I read the text straight through again in a single sitting. It took me about two hours. Once more the experience was riveting. I would encourage anyone, whether Christian or not, to do the same. The text as a whole has a power we may miss when pondering just particular passages or sections.

In the beginning there is an urgency, stirred by the expression, “and immediately”, as Jesus is baptised, and immediately goes into the wilderness, and immediately calls disciples, and immediately preaches in Capernaum, and immediately cures the sick. These words recur 13 times in the early verses, a refrain which injects movement and energy into the action.

Then there are questions, “why are you eating with tax collectors and sinners?”, “why aren't you fasting?”, “why are you breaking the Sabbath?”, questions which are handled with lightness and humour, an effect lost when a passage is just proclaimed solemnly in church. I like particularly the story of the man with the withered hand who is cured in the synagogue on the Sabbath. He hadn’t come to be healed, just to say his prayers. Invited to stretch out his hand, I suppose at first he stretched out his good one. “No, not that one, the other,” he would have been told. Imagine his jaw dropping when he lifts what was withered and finds it strong again.

There are parables and cures. People are amazed. Then halfway through, Jesus asks the crucial question, “Who do you say I am?” And Peter replies, “You are the Christ.”

It is the hub of the drama. The mood shifts. The atmosphere becomes more sombre. Predictions follow about Jesus’s passion, and conversations with a rich young man, with the Sons of Zebedee, and with blind Bartimaeus begin to alert us to the demands of discipleship. They are costly, but to follow with faith like Bartimaeus allows us to see.

After entering Jerusalem, Jesus drives from the Temple precincts those who had set up shop there. He is challenged about his authority to act as He is doing, about paying taxes to Caesar, and about the Resurrection.

The force of his replies dumbfounds his challengers, and after He has explained that the greatest commandment is to love God and our neighbour, no one dares to question him further.

Then he takes the offensive, asking why David called the Christ Lord, criticising the self-regard of the scribes, praising the generosity of a poor widow, and predicting the destruction of the Temple. It is not hard to see why those He challenged opposed Him.

Then events begin to move swiftly. Judas Iscariot goes to the chief priests to lay plans for his betrayal. During a supper with the 12 Disciples, which proves to be his last, Jesus identifies Himself with the bread they break and the cup they share: “This is my body, and this is my blood.” Afterwards, he is arrested in Gethsemane and taken to be tortured and tried. From the Cross only one word is spoken, a cry of desolation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The moment is dark and he dies.

Later, after the Sabbath, when women go to anoint the hastily buried body, they find the tomb empty, but a young man, dressed in white, tells them that Jesus has risen and they are to tell the Disciples, but they run away, filled with fear.

And so the text ends. A later ending tells of Jesus meeting the Disciples, instructing them, and ascending into Heaven, but the earlier text stops there, in fear and bewilderment, the greatest cliffhanger ending of all.

Revisit the text. We still have much to learn."