Saturday, April 25, 2020

Saint Mark's "Origin Story"?

Saint Mark the Evangelist, whose feast day is April 25, is venerated as the inspired author of the Gospel that bears his name, which depends largely on the witness of Saint Peter, whom Mark served in Rome during the Apostolic era. Mark is also traditionally honored as the founder of the church in the great ancient city of Alexandria in Egypt. Also widely held is the story of his martyrdom in that city by being dragged through the streets by a rope around his neck.

But where did Mark come from? Did he ever see or even meet Jesus? How did he become a disciple?

To these various questions the New Testament gives a few references, suggestions, and somewhat oblique hints. Then there is one significant Gospel story regarding a person who is never identified, but who certainly invites our curiosity. While his identity can never be proven, there are a few hints that render it plausible that it could have been Mark.

I like this idea, not so much from a scholarly point of view, but rather from the feeling of wouldn't-it-be-cool-if-this-were-true? - which obviously carries no exegetical weight beyond its mere possibility, a few hints of its plausibility, and the "fittingness" it would give to this story (recounted in all three Synoptics) of a dramatic encounter with Jesus during his earthly ministry.

It has occasionally been speculated that the "rich young man" who came to Jesus and asked what he had to do to "inherit eternal life" was in fact none other than the young Mark. As we recall, he affirmed his fidelity to the commandments, but when Jesus told him to sell all his possessions, give to the poor, and then "come, follow me," the young man "went away sad, for he had many possessions" (Mark 10:17-22; Matthew 19:20 specifies that he was "young").

We all know the story. But why connect it with Mark? This requires further speculation regarding this mysterious vocational encounter between Jesus and the rich young man, and also some connecting of dots that are perhaps a little more suggestive.

We are told that the man "went away sad," but we are not told where he went, what he did thereafter, or even what he decided to do with his possessions. Mark's Gospel recounts the story of the event during Jesus's time in Judea going up to Jerusalem (see Mark 10:1, 32). We know that Jesus had a few good connections in Jerusalem. There was at least one family with a house that included servants and an "upper room" that was large enough for a Passover meal for (at minimum) 13 people. Jesus was on familiar terms with the residents, enough so that he could arrange for his disciples to rendezvous with them and request the "large" "furnished" room on behalf of "the Teacher" (see e.g. Mark 14:13-16).

While this hardly indicates a palace, we are talking about a multi-story house of the kind that would belong to people of substantial means. This house will turn out to be (apparently, for no other houses are mentioned) the central piece of real estate in Jerusalem for the disciples beginning with the Last Supper, through the Passion and Resurrection, Pentecost, and the early life of the Jerusalem church. The book of Acts refers to a prominent house in Jerusalem where Peter went after being freed from prison, "the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark" (Acts 12:12). Christian traditions and the archeology of ancient churches in Jerusalem identify this house in Acts 12 with the house of the prior events. It has been the location since Roman times of the building, destruction, and rebuilding of the "Church of the Cenacle" (in honor of the Last Supper).

Acts12:12 is the first time we hear the name of the one generally agreed to be the author of the Gospel of Mark. He is the son in the family that owned the house where some of the greatest events of the Gospel and the foundation of the Church occurred: the Last Supper, the Resurrection appearances, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Mark never refers to himself by name in his gospel, but he is the only evangelist to tell us about the "young man" in the Garden when Jesus was arrested, who "ran away naked" (Mark 14:51-52). This is an unusual detail to include in a Gospel generally sparing in details. It has long been posited that Mark was referring to himself, and this becomes more plausible if we identify the wealthy home where the Last Supper had taken place with the home of Mark's wealthy family. The supposition is that young Mark secretly followed Jesus and the disciples to Gethsemane that Holy Thursday night, only to find himself stripped of his nightcloth while fleeing the unexpected scene of betrayal and arrest.

What we might draw from all of these clues is a sketch of "Mark" as a "rich young man who was fascinated by Jesus" but not yet ready to commit to being one of his followers.

It's not much of a sketch. I certainly haven't come close to proving anything (and I qualified from the beginning that I wasn't going to prove anything).  But at this point, I haven't even pointed to any evidence that might connect the rich inquirer of Mark 10 with the frightened (and chilly) young man running from the garden in Mark 14 - even if we presume that the latter was the Evangelist himself who was at that time heir to the property destined to be known as "the Cenacle." Why is it worthwhile to even consider this as a possibility that would be pretty cool if it turned out to be true?

Well, there is one more thing. The story of the unnamed rich young man whom Jesus calls to "follow him" is recounted in basically the same way in all three Synoptics. Once again, however, Mark introduces a detail not found in the other two accounts. It might be easy to miss, but it's important for its own sake. Mark tells us that after the rich man declared his obedience to the commandments but before Jesus spoke the great invitation, there was a moment where "Jesus, looking upon him, loved him" (Mark 10:21).

"Jesus, looking upon him, loved him..."

At the very center of this dramatic, profoundly personal, inscrutable meeting between two persons - the rich young person who was full of goodness (he kept the commandments) yet was searching for the definitive fulfillment of eternal life and Jesus who is that fulfillment in Person - it is Mark (and no one else) who gives us a glimpse "from within," from the silence of an intersubjective experience, of someone being loved by Jesus.

Why is Mark the one who bears witness to this love, which is the very core of the encounter? Could it be, possibly, that he was the one who experienced it?

When Jesus "looks upon you" and "loves you," it changes your life.

The Twelve left everything and followed Jesus when he called them. Later on, things got complicated: one betrayed him, another denied him, and they all fled. They ended up hiding in Mark's house, terrified and incredulous even when Jesus first appeared to them as the Risen One.

It's not impossible that others among the earliest group of disciples had different experiences that were sloppy in other ways. Maybe when they first experienced being loved by Jesus and called to follow him, they had a crisis. "What am I going to do?" "What about my mother and father, my children?" "What about all my possessions, my responsibilities, the people I employ, the people I work for? How am I going to disentangle all those knots and follow you? Still, I know that you are more important than anything in this world; I have never been so known and so loved before. I'm overwhelmed!"

Maybe those people "went away sad" ... at first. But something new had happened to them. Maybe some of them didn't go very far. Maybe they bumbled around on the edges of the crowd, conflicted and afraid but also more and more convinced, still hesitating, worrying, but drawn on by the love that finally won them over.

Jesus has no patience with "hesitation" pretending to be a legitimate pretext to put off following him, but he has immeasurable patience with human persons who are plagued by all sorts of obstacles and hesitations and smallness of faith. This is clear in the Gospels and it continues to be clear in the history of the Church.

The rich young man goes away sad because he has many possessions. Maybe the sadness, the possessions, the ego, the preoccupations assert themselves by force of habit at first, but how they shrink into insignificance in light of the unforgettable experience of being loved by the One who created him, the One whom he seeks, the One who took upon himself human nature and human flesh, a human heart, human eyes so as to "look upon him" and "love him" and want to be his friend.

"What can I do? ...Well, perhaps when they come to Jerusalem, they can use the house," the rich man thinks. And he becomes a little less sad. The seed has been planted...

Now I'm just making up an inner monologue that doesn't appear in any Gospel narrative. Clearly what I am setting forth are no more than musings, though perhaps they are edifying musings. I might be permitted some "poetic license" in imagining what might fill the gaps of a scenario that is only remotely plausible? As long as I'm not trying to fool anybody.

Still it is plausible. I would like to know, in particular, why Mark gave us that magnificent detail in his Gospel account of the rich young man: "Jesus, looking upon him, loved him..."

If Mark had experienced that moment himself, personally, he would have remembered it. And he would have wanted us to remember it too.