Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The energy of Mark’s Gospel

Reading Mark 1:1-8 for last Sunday’s sermon [Advent 2] reminded me that despite Mark’s deficiencies relative to Matthew, Luke and John - no Beatitudes, Good Samaritan, Road to Emmaus, Exposition on the Bread of Life, etc - Mark is nevertheless a great gospel and worthy of much praise.


Mark takes us almost straightaway to the action of Jesus. No wasting time and papyrus with a genealogy, story of conception, pregnancy, birth and infancy. No Herod or Quirinius, census, shepherds, or wise men. No songs. Eight verses acknowledging the forecast of ancient prophets and the announcements of a contemporary prophet and then, 1:9, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth ...” Preaching, forming a band of disciples, and healings soon follow.

Among Mark’s achievements with his gospel is the confrontation of the reader with the power and provocation of Jesus. Mark’s Jesus changes his world - people and power structures are either transformed or challenged. As a reader, what is my response to Mark’s Jesus? Mark does not allow me to be neutral about Jesus.

In Mark 1:1 we read that we are reading a “gospel” - a good news story or great announcement of importance for the world - and Mark’s urgency in communicating this story to us lies in the word “beginning”.

The beginning of the gospel for Mark is not Matthew’s Abrahamic genealogy or Luke’s Zechariah on duty in the temple or even John’s “before the beginning of history.” The beginning is the coming of Jesus himself as a full fledged, adult agent of God’s dramatic plan for the healing (salvation) of the world.

So there is (Christological, missiological) energy in Mark’s Gospel and he does a remarkable job of conveying that energy to his readers and sweeping us along through his breathless narrative.

This is the Gospel of Christ.

Praise to Christ the Word!


Father Ron said...
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Father Ron said...

Dear Bishop Peter, I continue to get inspiration from the daily messages of Pope Francis. Here is today's splendid offering:


"God is God for everyone, and in Jesus every wall of separation has definitively crumbled… Jesus created unity… God gives love, God asks for love… The Spirit inspires everything. And every Christian who is not afraid to devote time to prayer can make his or her own the words of the Apostle Paul: “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20)… Only in the silence of adoration do we experience the whole truth of these words… The prayer of adoration is the prayer that makes us recognize God as the beginning and the end of all of History. And this prayer is the living flame of the Spirit that gives strength to witness and to mission."

"O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel"

Anonymous said...

Peter, in the same year that the Carmelites gave me the works of St John of the Cross, I was taking a university course on the gospels. About the first of them, I read that it seemed, at least to some scholars, to have stichometric (line count) markers. Your OP about the gospel's narrative energy brought this to mind.

For an example, consider St Peter's confession at viii 29, often regarded as the turning point of the narrative. It generally has an equal number of lines before and after it. Coincidence or signal?

Since scrolls were copied in sections that were sewn together, it would not be odd if the sainted author composed his work one such section at a time. And to a reader of scrolls, the equal size and weight of the two halves would be obvious. Nor would this be unique; other ancient texts seem to have been subdivided by line count.

Were other incidents in the gospel flagged by their line counts? Some have thought so. Busy as I was learning other sorts of criticism, I myself did not pursue that idea.

Anonymous said...

But once in a while, someone notes that, by design or chance, readers respond to the gospel more or less as they would to a play in five acts. For that matter, a few notable actors have given dramatic presentations of it to live audiences. Tom Wright often proposes-- and I second his motion-- that churches start reading whole books of the canon aloud, beginning with this one. Unlike the other gospels, the first one is just the right length for a theatrical audience.

Still, it is hard for those of us who read spines with numbered pages attached to get past the prejudice that St Mark wrote what we think of as a book. After all, our culture is just beginning to be oral again, and few artifacts in our experience of it are like a scroll, or organised as a scroll would be.

However one thing that is like that can be seen in the projection booth of a cinema. Older films circulate on reels that are projected one after the other. In the early days of Hollywood, it was usual for screenwriters to "write to the reel" much as St Mark was thought to have written to the stretch of scroll.

Nobody needs to do that today because motion pictures are shot on video and streamed to thousands or millions of screens. Yet if you type *screenwriting* into the search box at Amazon, the titles that populate the list will tell you, essentially, how to tell a story in a common sequence of kinds of incidents. And just as the old scribes wrote with as uniform a hand as they could, so Hollywood still expects every script to be formatted in the 11 pt Courier font that makes every page about a minute long onscreen. These books are very precise about what your screenplay absolutely must achieve on say page 6 to escape a bored producer's trashcan.

If St Peter's confession in a pagan district sacred to the god Pan is the *midpoint* of the first gospel, then the professional storytellers will show you that Luke Skywalker catching his first glimpse of the Death Star is the *midpoint* of Star Wars. In both stories, the *midpoint* is the point of no return after which the protagonist confronts his antagonist, momentarily loses, recollects himself, fights again, and emerges the victor. This is the basic plot of every tale told in the West from the ancients to Shakespeare.

And that plot is thickening. In 1949, Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell proposed (The Hero With A Thousand Faces) that all our stories are variations on a *monomyth* in which a protagonist's ordeal enables his inner transformation and outer victory. Less than thirty years later, New Hollywood director George Lucas wedded the classic *five-act plot* to Campbell's *hero's journey* in the character of Luke Skywalker (Star Wars). Billions of dollars later, Lucas's innovation has been amply validated. Those books on Amazon use it to show how character arcs generate plots to make stories.

Of course, St Mark skipped film school. He wrote in his own interesting way, with neither the help of a script doctor, nor the hindrance of studio executives. If his abrupt CUT TO BLACK ending was intended, as the line counters have thought, then at Cannes he would be sitting with the French experimenters rather than the American codifiers.

Even so, we are less astonished than we might be by what he achieved. He presented the incarnation of the Son as action and speech that makes universal story-sense to readers and audiences.


Anonymous said...

Postscript-- Some readers of my 5:41 will have been startled by its reference to Caesarea Philippi as a pagan district sacred to the god Pan. Yet it was also called Paneas. Either name shows what archaeology confirms: St Peter recognised the Messiah and saw the Transfiguration amid pagans settled around Mount Hermon, which had its own plural significance. More radically, perhaps, such places as Mount Hermon, Mamre, and Shechem had meanings for some Jews that were independent of their unifying obligations at Jerusalem.

When "bibles fall out of the sky, complete with maps" (George Carey), those maps show us neither the persistence of idol worship in the Land, nor its advanced Hellenization in Jesus's day, nor which landmarks here and there meant what to whom in the diverse religious world of C1 Palestine. They tend to project the relative tidiness of modern nation-states into the messier topology of the ancient Near East. This badly flattens our understanding of what Jesus was actually doing with the energy that + Peter mentions in the OP.

By default, we imagine our wandering Lord teaching and healing Jews isolated in an idealised, pre-exilic landscape far from Rome. It has few pagans and no signs of their permanent settlement. Its Jews think too much about law and not at all about God, so that creative thought about who Jesus was to the nations must have been done after the Resurrection. It is perplexing that pious Jews would write about their Messiah in, of all languages, Greek. Bollocks.

Anonymous said...

Shortly after presiding over the adoption of the creed we recite in the eucharist, St Gregory of Nazianzus returned to the town where his father (a fire-worshipper converted by his Christian mother) had been bishop, and where he himself had been involuntarily priested. There he preached a homily for Pascha.
List all the themes that you have ever heard preached in Easter sermons. St Gregory's choice is not on it.

He retold the story that ends with Genesis xxxv 4--

"And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem."

And then he preached the gospel--

Having defeated the powers, the risen Lord has subsumed all lesser devotions to idols into a greater devotion to himself, and in him, to the holy Trinity.

What St Gregory preached after 381 was not far from what St Peter was confessing and witnessing 350 years before. Both the apostle and the Cappadocian father knew religious pluralism at first hand and saw human unity, personal integrity, and a truer relation to God in the Lord who had absorbed it.

In the centuries just after, the Lord's mostly urban followers migrated from the hazards of the great cities to a more stable life in the manorial economy taking shape in the countryside. Late antiquity was fading into the Middle Ages, and the old pluralism was being superseded by a Christendom that assimilated all but the Jews. Gradually, readers of the first gospel stopped wondering why St Peter confessed the Messiah in a place named for Caesar, and preachers no longer quite saw what the son of a sometime fire-worshipper had seen in Jesus.

Here up yonder today, many rural Christians see wicked pluralism encroaching on their frontier Christendom. Do you have them on the blessed isles?

They are right to confess their allegiance to the Lord-- indeed, we wish that they would go on to "trust not in princes and sons of men in whom there is no salvation" (Psalm cxlv/cxlvi 3)-- but they are mistaken to think that pluralism itself is a threat to the Body or an affront to the Lord. Just as we have had to remember that Jesus of Nazareth was not a pale, blue-eyed, blonde, so we now need to remember that he dispersed humanity from the false unity of Babel and ministered to its fragments in Israel so that his Spirit might truly integrate us at Pentecost.






Father Ron said...

Here is a musical clue about what Advent and Christmas really means:


Peter Carrell said...

Thank you Ron and Bowman for comments above.

I will especially think about Mark's Jesus among the pagans!

Father Ron said...

Dear Bshop Peter, just could not resist this lovely message about God's love for all sinners - despite our common human waywardness -


"There is no sin that can completely erase the image of Christ present in each one of us. No sin can erase that image that God has given us — the image of Christ. Sin can disfigure it, but not remove it from God’s mercy. A sinner can remain in error for a long time, but God is patient till the end, hoping that [the sinner’s] heart will eventually open and change… What comes to my mind is the many times that I have seen people queue to enter a prison. Many mothers queue up to see their imprisoned child: they do not stop loving their child and they know that the people passing by on the bus are thinking: “Ah, that is a prisoner’s mother”. Yet they are not embarrassed about this; or better yet, they are embarrassed but they go ahead, because their child is more important than their embarrassment. Thus we are more important to God than all of the sins that we can commit, because He is a father, He is a mother, He is pure love, He has blessed us forever. And He will never stop blessing us."

Pope Francis "

(Im off to celebrate the Sacrament of God's love for ALL)

"O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel!"

Anonymous said...

More on Pope Francis and another notable Catholic--