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A Year with Mark: January

A Year with Mark: January

As Christmas recedes into the distance we begin the business of the year. Mark opens his Gospel with the proclamation of the new régime at the Baptism of Jesus. With all the solemnity of a formal revelation the heavens are split open, the Spirit of God descends and the Voice declares to Jesus, ‘You are my Son, the beloved’. The rest of the Gospel will lay out what this means, but it is not till Jesus has died on the Cross that a human being stumbles on the full meaning of the declaration: ‘Truly this man was Son of God’, says the centurion at the foot of the Cross. When Jesus departs into the desert for his preparation of forty days perhaps he too is pondering what this will mean for him. Mark tells us little about this period, suggesting only that it was already a return to the peace of the Garden of Eden, with the company of the beasts and served by God’s own ministers, the angels.

But as yet the meaning of the scene is known only to Mark’s audience, not to the actors in the events. With Markan irony, the first disciples to be called have no inkling who Jesus is. They merely drop everything and follow the magnetic personality of this unknown stranger. Gradually we, who already know who Jesus is, see them repeatedly amazed at his power and authority. First he teaches in the synagogue on his own authority, not like the Jewish teachers who merely repeat the interpretations of their rabbis. Then, in the crowded, stuffy room at Capernaum he claims to forgive sins; any self-respecting Jew knows that this is blasphemy: forgiveness comes only from God. But Jesus exercises God’s power to heal the sinner. Next he commands the wind and the seas and they obey. There is a crescendo of power, authority and awe, but still they do not understand. Jesus wearily rebukes them, the first of three rebukes to their lack of faith, each time on the Lake of Galilee, each couched in the characteristic Markan double-question, ‘Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?’ (4.40). The evil spirits recognize him, sure enough, but he binds them to silence, for his followers are not yet ready to understand.

Only when the eyes of the blind man of Bethsaida are opened does Peter at last also see and hail Jesus as the Messiah. He still does not understand what this means, and the second half of the Gospel, leading up to the Passion, focuses on the gradual and painful learning by the disciples that if they want to follow Jesus they must be prepared to share his Cross.

The story of the Gospel is a painful mirror of our own slowness to understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. We never know Jesus fully, and spend our whole lives learning what he really means, making mistake after mistake. And the hardest part is to learn the message of suffering with Christ.

by Dom Henry Wansbrough OSB

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