Our Gospel readings at the 10.30 am Sunday Eucharist run on a three year cycle. One year nearly all the readings come from Matthew, then Mark the next year, and finally Luke before the cycle repeats, starting on Advent Sunday every year.
This year, our Gospel readings come primarily from Mark, so it might be useful to explore what makes Mark’s Gospel distinctive.
As the shortest and most direct of the four Gospels, Mark has long been a bit of a ‘Cinderella’ part of scripture. It does not have most of the sayings of Jesus we get in both Matthew and Luke. Its Resurrection account was obviously bolted on much later. We have no stories about the Jesus’ infancy and childhood in Mark’s Gospel or even His temptation by Satan in the wilderness; in Mark, the account of Jesus’ life starts with his baptism by John the Baptist.
For many centuries, Mark’s Gospel was seen as the poor relation of the others – perhaps just a rough first draft of a biography of Jesus’ life that was turned into something better by Matthew and Luke.
In recent years there has been a greater appreciation of Mark’s craftsmanship.
The Gospel’s structure is very carefully crafted. For example, there are two great moments of dramatic turning in the middle of the story. As in the other Gospels, one is when Peter says, “you are the Christ”. The other is unique to Mark, when a father asking Jesus to heal his child cries, “I believe, help my unbelief” – a phrase that resonates with many of our own faith journeys now. It is reassuring to note that it also resonated with some of Jesus’ earliest and closest followers!
Moreover, although Mark leaves out almost everything except stories about Jesus’ life, these are often filled with detail that the other evangelists leave out.
Margaret Hebblethwaite writes in a recent edition of The Tablet, “It is Mark, for example, who tells us that when the paralytic was brought to Jesus they had to take part of the roof off to lower him down in front of Jesus; that the two sons of Zebedee were named by Jesus “Boanerges” (sons of thunder); that when Jesus was asleep in the boat during a storm he was in the stern, on a cushion; that the demoniac of the Gerasene region used to break his chains and cut himself with stones, and gave his name as “Legion”… that Jesus healed the deaf man with the word Ephphatha, putting his fingers in his ears, spitting and touching his tongue…”
It is in Mark that women are often brought to life most vividly, and it is Mark’s Gospel which concludes by saying that when the women found the empty tomb, they ran away in terror – so often our own reaction when we encounter signs that the Gospel is in fact absolutely true.
One word comes up time and again in Mark’s Gospel: “immediately!” The paralysed man “immediately took the mat” and walked; “immediately”, the blind man “received his sight and followed him on the way”. A Franciscan friend who reads the Bible from cover to cover the course of every year calls it the Punk Rock Gospel – it has an immediacy, directness, and pace that amplifies the urgent call for conversion of life that is its central message.
Canon Gerald Osborne of the Vale of Pewsey Team has memorised the whole of Mark’s Gospel and has recited it in public for paying customers at a number of occasions – if you ever get the chance to hear him, I do recommend it.
The Rev’d Gerry Lynch