St. Mark is so over Christmas
A Homily for the First Sunday of Advent
St. Mark is so over Christmas. And the church is having none of it either, at least not this Sunday.
To be fair, Mark does not have time for Christmas. He is not writing a heart-warming story. No, like the other Evangelists, he is offering testimony—in his case, to a church in crisis, the church in Rome.
Palestine, the homeland of the faith, has revolted, and the patience of Rome is exhausted. When her armies are finished, there will be no Jerusalem, no rump of David’s kingdom.
Roman society views Christians with contempt, finding them backward and insular. Swept up in Emperor Nero’s persecution, the Apostle Peter has been martyred in the Vatican Circus, just outside the city. The Apostle Paul has been beheaded by the same emperor. The community they leave behind is composed of both Jewish and Gentile Christians. All of them are rightly terrified of what is to come.
Not really time to coo over a baby in a crib of straw or to sing of shepherds and wise men, is it? No, if he was ever into it, Mark is over Christmas.
To sense the tenor of Mark’s testimony, you have only to compare his usage of our passage from Isaiah with that of Matthew and Luke. The prophet wrote:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you,
while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for,
such as they had not heard of from of old (Is 63:19, 64:2-3).
Isaiah speaks of “rending” the heavens, baqa (בָּקַע). All three of the synoptic Gospels cite him in the baptismal scene of Jesus, though Matthew and Luke employ more benign expressions. Their heavens are merely opened. Mark insists upon them being torn asunder, schizomenous (σχιζομένους).
Mark’s is a Gospel written in almost desperate haste. One could say that it has only two acts. There’s certainly no prologue in Bethlehem. No time for that. In his first act, Mark needs his hearers to reflect again upon who Jesus was, the Son of God in our midst, yet one who cast off every expectation we had of the Messiah.
Jesus never clearly claims our titles for himself. Yet he comes among us as one who forgives sins, as one whom even the winds and the sea obey. He shepherds Israel; he walks on the sea; and he makes the deaf hear and the mute speak. He comes looking for figs on the tree of faith and finds none.
The Jewish leaders fail to recognize who was in their midst, but his first disciples are equally confounded. Immediately after he feeds the multitudes, they grumble about where their next meal is coming from. Mark does not want his community to make the same mistake. We do not get Jesus. We think we have him, think we understand him, but we do not. In this regard, Christ is tearing apart our expectations. But he is nonetheless the very God of Israel in our midst, and—never mind the circumstances of his birth—he has come among us to die.
Of that Mark is certain. In his Passion narrative, the second act of his Gospel, Mark speaks of the Scriptures being fulfilled (14:48-49). Jesus does not die despite the will of the Father. The Father clearly desires this death to come without delay.
The prophet Zechariah wrote:
Strike the shepherd
that the sheep may be scattered (13:7).
Mark has no need to exculpate the God of Israel from the death of Jesus. No! His death is God’s great act in history. In hard-won obedience, St. Mark’s Jesus lays responsibility for his death at the very feet of the Father.
All of you will have your faith shaken,
for it is written:
“I will strike (Pataxō; Πατάξω) the shepherd,
and the sheep will be dispersed” (Mk 14:7).
The times are desperate, and Mark has composed a Gospel for just these days. Like the first disciples, our faith is shaken or—so much the worse—slumbrous. We are caught up in times we do not understand, days of ever-growing darkness.
In the dark climax of this Gospel, a Roman centurion, the enemy himself, reveals the true identity of Christ. He alone can do this because he has watched him die.
When the centurion
who stood facing him
saw how he breathed his last he said,
“Truly this man was the Son of God!” (15:39).
Again, as if in desperation, Mark then cuts short his story. In his Gospel’s first ending, even the resurrection is edited down to a brief angelic announcement, one that scarcely steps free of the horrible death.
Do not be amazed!
You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified.
He has been raised; he is not here.
Behold, the place where they laid him (16:6).
Why this frenzied rush? What does Mark want from us? How are disciples today to respond? For nothing has fundamentally changed in the world, and God never alters. So how are we to recognize the Christ who rose from the dead and who continues to act in our midst? Again, the evangelist comes so quickly to his mark.
Be watchful! Be alert!
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: “Watch!” (13:33, 36-37).