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St. Mark—the Cowardly Lion

Today, April 25, is the feast day of Mark the Evangelist. His gospel (GMark), the briefest of the four, is also likely the earliest, and most scholars think Matthew and Luke gratefully drew from his work to pen their own longer works.

St Mark and his emblem, the winged lion

Mark himself has a chequered history in Christian tradition. Yes, he apparently founded the church at Alexandria and is praised by many as the founder of Christianity in Africa (although that honour might belong to the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8). But he also deserted Paul after Paul’s powerful ministry on Cyprus (Acts 13), and he might also be the young man who earlier fled from the soldiers arresting Jesus (Mark 14).

I am intrigued by these stories of Mark’s courage and cowardice—leading the church in the mighty Roman city of Alexandria after having deserted both Jesus and Paul!—as I remember how GMark opens and closes.

GMark opens, not with the nativity of Jesus (so GMatthew and GLuke), but as GJohn does (after GJohn’s prologue): with the ministry of John the Baptist. Here was the epitome of courage, a man who publicly called all Israel to account with Old Testament fire, and who would lose his head after publicly rebuking the king and enraging the queen.

And GMark’s first story of Jesus himself, having been baptized by John, is of his successfully staring down the very devil in the wilderness. Strong stuff.

That’s how GMark starts. But it ends…weirdly…if it “ends” at all. For unlike the other three gospels, GMark doesn’t end. Or, perhaps better, it ends, and ends, and ends.

In modern translations, one will see the multiple endings of GMark that appear in the various manuscripts we have of this gospel. The so-called shorter ending is just a verse’s worth of assurance that the women at the empty tomb told “those around Peter” what they had been commanded to relay, and afterward Jesus sent out the gospel through all of them to the world.

The so-called longer ending seems like bits and pieces from the other gospels, only to end in a briar patch of textual variants, with “other ancient authorities” adding here and subtracting there.

Aside from the famous “snake handling” verse, however, not much is unique here, and it thus doesn’t matter much which ending is the original one, if any of them are. What intrigues in the context of Mark’s own spotty career of cowardice and courage, however, is the way GMark breaks off before the contested endings.

The women at the tomb see a young man in a white robe inside, and this angel (= “messenger”) tells them three things: Don’t be afraid; Jesus is risen; and tell the disciples, including Peter, to meet him in Galilee.

So then, GMark says, the women went out—and directly disobeyed the angelic orders. They “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).

That is the uncontested ending of GMark: the earliest witnesses flatly failing for fear.

It is, of course, unlikely that GMark originally ended that way. What we know from the other gospels is that the story itself didn’t end that way.

The women surely were dominated by alarm at first and kept their explosive news to themselves without gossiping it to anyone and everyone they met. But they took their story, the relating of which would make anyone think they were mad with grief (as some indeed did: Luke 24:11), and told it. They mastered their fear and became the first evangelists.

You can’t get that reassuring truth about the women from the uncontested part of GMark.

And you can’t get reassuring truth about Mark’s eventual evangelistic and ecclesiastical courage from how he himself appears in the Bible.

Did Mark relate sympathetically to those women, shocked by Jesus’ disappearance, amazed by the angel’s appearance, and daunted by their divine commission?

Did he, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, record the hard truth that they didn’t immediately leap into faithful action—just as he himself, apparently, did not?

Did he leave it to others to record the eventual and epoch-changing faithfulness of those early witnesses, letting stand that these early heroes of the faith were themselves subject to fear so strong it rendered them mute—for a while?

As one who has not always found his voice to speak up for justice, for charity, and for the gospel, I am encouraged today to stand with John Mark, rather than John the Baptist, among those who only eventually have overcome fright to speak the truth.

Happy St. Mark’s Day!


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