“Maaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrkkkk!” she shouted, letting all in our neighborhood know that my presence was needed at home immediately. I could always tell when my mother was worried about my whereabouts and my mother had the uncanny knack of turning my name – a one-syllable word – into a multi-syllable exclamation that would make even stray dogs flee.
It was in those moments, too, that I lamented my namesake, St. Mark, feeling as though in the large Catholic family lotto for the best saint names I’d somehow lost out. I mean my older brothers could claim devil-slayers like St. Michael, snake charmers like St. Patrick or even St. Francis, animal tamer (and now, ironically, target for birds in countless yards), just to name a few. And then there I was… stuck with good ‘ol Mark whose only endearing quality in my young, sarcastic mind was that he wrote the shortest Gospel of the four, meaning that our parochial school Mass should have gone shorter. Alas, my liturgical arithmetic was off a little bit; a shorter Gospel book never meant a shorter Gospel proclamation (or homily, for that matter).
It wasn’t until later, during my high school years, that a youth minister opened my eyes to the gift my mother and father had bestowed upon me through their prayerful discernment of my name.
What’s in a name?
A closer examination of the New Testament reveals that the author of the second Gospel was actually known as “John Mark” (Acts 12:25; 15:37). Though John was his Hebrew name, he became better known by his Roman name, Mark, and for good reason.
Like the Greeks before them, the Romans had more gods than Cheesecake Factory has entrees. Romans had a god for everything — sex, weather, agriculture, you name it. The Roman god of war was called Mars, of which “Mark” is a derivative. How blessedly different my early childhood would have been if someone would have clued me in on the fact that the name “Mark” – my name – translates to “mighty warrior.” That little tidbit would have proven useful on more dodge ball courts than I can count.
Why, though, would the evangelist choose to go by his Roman name as he sought to spread the good news of Christ? Was it because he didn’t want to be confused by the far better known “John,” the son of Zebedee and beloved disciple of Jesus? The answer actually has roots far deeper.
God designs each of us with a specific mission and Mark was no exception. The core audience St. Mark wrote to were Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians living in Rome. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Mark’s words would bring hope to Christians enduring strong persecution at the time. Given this fact, it should come as no shock that Mark’s portrait of Jesus is one of a wonder-working warrior, a perfect combination of divine power and mercy toward humanity. Put simply, if you can “understand” St. Mark’s Gospel (which is the shortest and easiest), you will have the foundation to understand the other three and the remainder of the New Testament.
Several things make St. Mark’s Gospel quite different than the other three. You won’t come across several long sermons in Mark’s Gospel (only two, to be exact), nor will you find the “back story” of the nativity that you do in Matthew and Luke. No, in Mark, Jesus is a God of action, performing miracles and casting out demons at every drop of the hat and turn of the page. St. Mark’s Gospel is fast-paced and power packed, which is one reason that the symbol associated with St. Mark is the lion. Jesus’ power and might are seen on every page… it’s as though when Christ speaks, heaven roars with love and mercy.
Through St. Mark’s pen, the Holy Spirit breathes urgency into every chapter. Should you read the Gospel from start to finish, you’ll notice that Mark uses the word “immediately” about 40 times in just 16 short chapters. Note, too, that following the Christ’s crucifixion, it is not a Jew, and not even a regular Roman citizen but a high-ranking Roman officer – a Centurion – who first proclaims Christ’s identity as the “Son of God” (Mark 15:39). Such a bold statement from a highly trained and revered soldier undoubtedly raised the eyebrows of more than a few in the Roman audience at the time.
Perhaps the passion and the urgency communicated in St. Mark’s account reflected as much about the author as they did about his Lord. One must wonder, however, where all this passion and intimate knowledge of Christ came from if St. Mark was not one of the original Twelve Apostles.
The Saints behind the Saint
The New Testament reveals so many interesting things about our early Church, among them that it wasn’t much different than the Church today… people didn’t always get along.
While Mark was the cousin of St. Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), it was his relationship with two other “VIPs” that gave Mark his credibility and information. St. Mark was a traveling companion to both St. Peter and St. Paul, offering him the best of both apostolic worlds. Peter obviously had a close relationship with the young evangelist, referring to him intimately as “my son Mark” (1 Peter 5:13). Mark’s Gospel was obviously heavily influenced by the fisherman turned shepherd, Peter, our first Pope, offering eye witness details that could be known only by Peter, himself (Mark 4:35-38; 5:38-41). In fact, a closer examination of Peter’s testimony in Acts 10:36-43 reveals almost an “outline” for Mark’s entire Gospel. Whether a scribe or recording secretary or merely a student with pristine memory, Mark’s witness to the life of Christ was heavily influenced by Peter’s “behind the scenes” eyewitness account.
St. Paul, too, had intimate working knowledge of Mark taking him on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:5) which we come to find out was cut short for some reason, as Mark left the mission early (Acts 13:13). Whatever happened became an obvious source of tension between he and Paul (Acts 15:36-41) but was later reconciled as Mark rejoined him on future missionary efforts (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24). Paul even publicly praises Mark’s ministerial usefulness in his letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:11).
In Mark we have the portrait of a true disciple, fueled by a passionate love for Christ but still susceptible to moments of spiritual immaturity, self-focus, and stubbornness. He shared the good news (gospel) of Jesus with all he encountered while personally growing in virtue. He didn’t wait until he was “perfect” to share Jesus Christ, Mark sought Christ first, trusting that His grace would fill in the gaps.
The Bible helps us to see where we need to grow in holiness, and offers us invaluable insight into how to do it. That is why Scripture – and books* like this one – are so vital to our daily faith walk.
Are you, like St. Mark, willing to follow Christ wherever He leads you? Are you prepared to use every gift, talent, and situation you’re given to lead others to Him? Are you ready to encounter the real Jesus of the Gospels and not just your pastor’s or parents’ vision of Him that has been passed along to you?
Praying with Scripture will change your life forever. This little book* you now hold in your hands is a true gift, since it will help you get even more out of the Gospel(s) and your Bible, in general. Take your time with this book. Open up to each passage in your own Bible and read it, then read the commentary in this book, then read the passage again, allowing St. Mark (and us) to act as tour guides into the story. Envision the scene. Watch for adjectives. Pay attention to details. Really “enter in” to the moment. Lock eyes with Jesus. See the lion beneath the lamb’s exterior. Allow the Gospel to inspire and challenge you, to shock and comfort you. Listen closely with the ears of your heart as your heavenly parent calls you by name… and be thankful that whatever your name is and whomever you are named after, that by virtue of your baptism you are God’s child, and that your name is written in heaven (Luke 10:20).
St. Mark, pray for us!
*Editor’s Note: This blog was originally written as the forward for the book “Heaven’s Roar” by Bob Rice, available now in the Life Teen Online Store.