The central character in Mark’s Gospel is Jesus of Nazareth, who is identified as the Son of God both at the outset (1:1) and at the moment of his death (15:39). In between, Mark presents Jesus as a miracle worker who heals the sick, frees individuals from demonic possession and manifests power over nature and even death. He also portrays Jesus as an authoritative teacher, though in comparison with other Gospels he gives relatively little of the content of Jesus’ teaching. Throughout his narrative, Mark further identifies Jesus as the Son of Man, Son of David, Lord, Messiah and other exalted figures. Nevertheless, Mark insists that Jesus’ identity can be properly understood only with reference to his death on the cross as the suffering Messiah.
The reading for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mark 1:21-28) narrates the beginning of Jesus’ public activity as a teacher and healer. The events take place in the synagogue at Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee. Mark tells his story with a literary device that recurs throughout his Gospel. He begins by describing Jesus’ persuasiveness as a teacher. Then he interrupts that narrative with an account of an exorcism. Finally he returns to the theme of the power of Jesus’ word. The device is technically known as “intercalation,” though it is more popularly referred to as Mark’s “sandwich” technique. The effect is that the two stories interpret and confirm each other. The point here is that from the beginning of his public activity, Jesus is powerful in both word and deed.
This text features a title for Jesus—“the Holy One of God”—that further contributes to our understanding of the Markan Jesus. The title comes from the demon or unclean spirit that inhabits the possessed man. In Mark’s Gospel, those who come from the supernatural (even demonic) world understand who Jesus is and realize that his presence means their defeat and demise. Despite its opposition to Jesus, the demon correctly identifies Jesus as the Holy One of God.
In the Bible the word holy entails separation from the ordinary and profane, and implies a connection to God and the divine sphere. In fact, God is the Holy One par excellence. Persons, things and actions are holy by association with God as the Holy One. Holiness involves consecration and dedication to God, and separation from what is evil and improper. In calling Jesus “the Holy One of God” the demon recognizes that Jesus is more than a wise teacher or powerful healer. Rather, as the Holy One of God, Jesus reveals the person of God and the will of God. By associating with Jesus we can become holy and share in the divine life.
In the weeks to come, while doing justice to the Old Testament and Gospel readings, I want also to highlight the readings from the letters of Paul and other early Christian writers. My concern will be with the significance of God the Holy One, Jesus as the Holy One of God, and the Holy Spirit in Christian life today. From these first-century documents, we in the 21st century can learn much about the difference that Jesus the Holy One of God can make in our lives.
• What is the effect of Mark’s sandwich technique on you as a reader?
• In the biblical perspective, what qualifies as holiness? In what sense is Jesus the Holy One of God?
• Among the persons whom you know and have known, are there any whom you regard as especially holy? Why?