This year we are following Mark’s Gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary, so I thought I’d write a few thoughts about it. The Revised Common Lectionary, which many churches of all denominations and none often use, is a rather lovely idea – that churches throughout the land and the world are all reading the same Gospel every Sunday.
It divides itself into a three year cycle, following the synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke. They give John a miss as he tends to have a hell of a lot of teaching and not many fun stories, but John gets his fair share of Christmas, Holy week and the bits where Mark is too short to last a full year.
Because Mark is really very short. You could read it in an afternoon. It also happens to be the first Gospel, and Matthew and Luke make heavy use of him about 70% of Mark ends up without any change in Matthew and Luke.
It’s a very simple Gospel. There are very nuanced thoughts in it, but I’m not sure that thinking is all Mark’s. There are lots of theological variations within it, and I have a feeling he was reporting a lot of earlier stories and traditions which came to him verbatim, or as well as he could remember them.
Mark’s Gospel is in roughly two halves. The first half, Jesus wanders around Israel healing everyone, preaching and teaching and getting up the noses of those in charge. Then the Transfiguration is the mountain-top event in the middle where Jesus is touched by God. After then it is all prediction of the passion, and then down into the hell of trial and Crucifixion. And – this is the bit we often miss – there is no happy ending. The resurrection is not a happy ending. Mark’s original ending leaves us with an empty tomb, frightened women and a feeling that everything has gone a bit strange. It’s as though he didn’t really know what to make of it all. It’s like reality melts, like a Salvador Dali painting.
Mark’s Gospel was finished shortly after 70AD – the scholars like to suggest between 65 and 85AD, but my own contention is that it was written quickly after 70AD, for reasons I’ll give later. There are parts of Mark’s Gospel which are obviously earlier, but that was when Mark put all the existing pieces together.
The reason you won’t find much of Mark in the rest of Christmas readings is because Mark has no stories about Jesus’ youth or childhood or birth. It leaps straight in with John the Baptist. It’s a hectic Gospel, short and almost reckless in how quickly it moves from one story to the other. It feels as though it was written in a hurry. And I believe it was.
There are two things that we need to understand about the early Christians that Mark was writing for. Firstly, they were all either Jews, or affiliated with Judaism. They didn’t all live in Jerusalem, and they weren’t all strictly observant like the Pharisees. Much of the laws of ritual purity were not moral codes at the time, they only related to being close to the Temple. A man could live for years in a state of ritual impurity and it would not matter, until he made a pilgrimage to visit the Temple. Some of them may have led lives almost indistinguishable from other Roman Citizens. But the distinguishing feature of all Jews and affiliates, they all worshipped the one God, rather than the many God’s of the Roman Empire.
Those who were not Jews were often known as “God fearers” – those who were interested in Judaism but not quite ready to fully commit. Whether that was because of the idea of adult circumcision, or whether it was to do with the idea of monotheism impinging on duties within the Roman world, we can never be sure. But there were a significant number of people who were attracted to the idea of monotheism at the time, but, whilst attending synagogue, they weren’t fully committed to becoming Jews.
At the time of Mark’s writing there were those in Christianity who insisted everyone should be circumcised, the “circumcision party” as Paul called them. Not the sort of party I would ever want to go to myself, but it does show that Christianity was at least partly a denomination of Judaism at the time.
So Christianity’s constituent was in reality Judaism, and those attracted to Judaism.. And the Jews all believed one thing, which is the second thing we need to understand about this era. The Temple of Jerusalem was where God lived. Physically. In the holy of Holies, in the Inner Sanctum, God lived. Over the years as the Temple was built up, Judaism had become more and more a place-centred religion. The years where God walked in the cool of the evening with Adam, spoke to Moses in the burning bush, called our to the wandering Arameans, those days had gone in favour of the land and the Temple, where God was almost trapped by the priests, letting no-one in and guarding all access to God.
Now in 70AD something catastrophic happened to Judaism which changed it for ever. There were a number of uprisings from the Jews, partly driven by “false messiahs” and partly on the actions of the Romans. One is believed to be mentioned in Mark’s Gospel: In Chapter 13, Mark says “when you see the desolating sacrilege standing where it ought not (let the reader understand)” etc. “Let the reader understand” is a whispered aside to us, “you get this bit don’t you?” The desolating sacrilege was believed to be the Romans putting up their banners, bearing the image of their Gods, in the Temple. This (purported) outrage led to the siege of Jerusalem and the eventual destruction of the Temple.
It is impossible to overstate how devastating which was to the millions of Jews all over the world. The place where God lived, where God physically existed, had been destroyed. Where was God? Had he been killed? Had he abandoned them?
Judaism was in crisis, rocked to the core. And it is in this context that I believe Mark’s Gospel was written – written in a hurry, written to a group of people who were in the midst of desolation and grief. Mark’s frankly uneven and restless Gospel was written to say simply –God had left the building.
There is much talk in Mark’s gospel about “not one stone being laid upon another” etc, to prepare people for the destruction. But in Chapter 13, the Apocalyptic, which talks of the future for the sake of the present, we have Jesus saying “when you hear wars, and rumours of wars, then do not be afraid, for these are just the birth pangs”. Mark’s Gospel was a message of comfort to the Jews at a time of great tribulation.
To Mark, the Pharisees had got it wrong – the Messiah had come along and they had crucified him for blasphemy. There was a certain irony in the fact that calling oneself the Messiah almost implicitly meant that you were blaspheming. Therefore, by definition, the actual Messiah would also be accused of blasphemy and strung up.
To Mark, the Pharisees were tied and shackled by their traditions and old ways of seeing God. They had limited their vision to what they knew. And so God had decided that he needed to escape their limiting religion.
The crucial phrase in Mark for me is in Chapter CH15:38. “And the veil of the Temple was ripped in two, from the top to the bottom” That’s an extraordinary phrase in a Jewish text. The veil was what separated God from even the priests. The Temple had the court of the Gentiles, the court of the women, the court of the priests, and finally the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was allowed, the place where God lived. For years, God was kept apart, the priests acting as guards and bouncers, insisting that everything that God came into contact with was clean and perfect.
What image of God do we have as a result of those ideas? When we ourselves restrict communion to people, to children even, when we feel that they are not correct enough to receive God’s grace? It sounds to me like the sort of precautions that you make before going to visit a sick old person, someone for whom a tiny cold would kill.
The Pharisees treated God as though he was a sick old man, not robust enough to be in the presence of the great unwashed. And at the crucifixion, God escaped. The veil was ripped open. He was no longer in one time and one place, but he was, as we celebrate at Christmas, incarnate in the world.
It is often the way of religion that we limit God. We shrink in our vision of God to one form of revelation, one tradition, one practice, one liturgy one expression, one theological understanding. It is in these moments, when our faithfulness is to a religion or a theology or a tradition, that God slips through our fingers.
IN the “mini apocalypse” of Chapter 13, Mark follows traditions by using predictions of the future to talk about the present – that is what apocalyptic literature does – speak of the future to talk about the present. Mark said “there will be wars, and rumours of wars” but he assured his fellow Jews that it would be alright, that this was not the end, this was the beginning of something new, the “birth pangs”.
It is worth remembering, when we go thought the torture that the Anglican communion likes to put itself through. It is worth remembering when we despair about the state of our churches and the state of the world. It is in these times when we need to look up and raise our heads. For it is in the big picture, the great world of God’s creating, that salvation is to be found, not in a narrow and cosy tradition. It is in different theologies and different ideas that God can be found by different people in different ways. It is not ours to say “we are right” – there are plenty of religions which seek to do that – it is simply for us to say that God has given us a path where we can find him, and encourage others to find their path too.
Mark’s hectic, hasty, keen Gospel, is, I think, there to tell us as it told it’s first readers that seeming disaster is simply the beginning of something new; that the the times when we feel God has abandoned us, are in reality the times when we refuse to look for God in new places. He calls us to see wider, and look deeper, to find God better.
For one thing we can be assured. Tower and Temple will fall to dust; things will change, expressions will change, theologies and understandings will change, because God is always making things new. Often irritating, sometimes frightening, occasionally, if we see it as such, beautiful.
Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
“Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolv’d
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.”
And slowly answer’d Arthur from the barge:
“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
(from Tennyson, “the Idylls of the King”)