HOMILY for the Feast of St Mark
My ‘CTS New Daily Missal’ provides a helpful summary of the tradition concerning who we celebrate today: “St Mark (died c.75), the author of the Gospel bearing his name, is often identified with the young man who ran away when the Lord was arrested. His Gospel gives the teaching and memoirs of St Peter. He joined St Paul and St Barnabas on their first missionary journey and later became St Paul’s secretary in Rome. He is thought to have established the Church in Alexandria, and to have died a martyr there”.
Except that, like the other evangelists, exactly who St Mark was is rather difficult to pin down. It’s like a detective investigation trying to track down the historical evangelist, and the traditional account of Mark’s identity is now thought to be a conflation of several different New Testament figures called Mark.
But this is not new. In fact, the evangelists’ identities have been debated since the second century, yet it seemed unimportant to some of the Church Fathers such as St Irenaeus just who the person of Mark was. Hippolytus of Rome, however, rather tantalizingly refers to him as ‘Mark the stumpy-fingered’. It is widely accepted that Mark’s gospel was written in Rome, and Hippolytus’ mention of a Mark with a specific physical attribute suggests that the author of Mark’s gospel was known and remembered by the Christians in Rome. But what mattered most was not who Mark was but what he wrote, and although he need not have been an eyewitness to Christ’s life, his source must have been, otherwise the early Christians would not have accepted his writings as an authentic witness to Christ’s life, and disseminated it so quickly. From the second century, the Church Father Papias asserted that Mark’s source was no less than St Peter, first bishop of the Roman Church, and there is little reason for us to disbelieve this important apostolic basis for St Mark’s Gospel.
A disregard for the person of Mark is also evident in our Liturgy. For the Gospel today, taken from the ‘Long Ending’ of Mark’s Gospel is recognized not to have been written by the same author as the rest of the Gospel that ended 6 verses earlier. So, ironically, whoever St Mark was, he didn’t write the section read in today’s Gospel. This long ending, which is no less canonical than the rest of the Gospel, is a later appendix summarizing elements from Acts and the other Gospels to round off Mark’s abrupt ending. Perhaps Mark’s brevity and originally truncated end – it’s ‘stumpiness’, we might say, is another reason why Hippolytus refers to ‘Mark the stumpy-fingered’!
So, what does the Patristic and Liturgical disregard for the identity of Mark tell us? Firstly, that our liturgical celebration, as with every feast of a saint, is about God’s grace at work in human lives. So, whoever the historical Mark was, he undoubtedly existed and wrote a Gospel, and, as our Collect says, we thank God for the grace that inspired him. Secondly, it speaks of the humility of the Christian preacher so that the person of the evangelist, preacher, Christian should decrease, so that Christ may increase; our focus is on the Word, the Message, and not the messenger. And finally, by focusing on the person of Jesus Christ, who is authentically presented to us in Mark’s Gospel, we hope, as the Collect says, to “follow faithfully in the footsteps of Christ”. And that, ultimately, is why we’re here celebrating this feast: that we may encounter Christ, follow him, and so, make him known, as the author of St Mark’s Gospel certainly did.