The tradition of the early Church is unanimous in attributing the second Gospel to Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter the apostle. The historian Eusebius quotes Papias, a disciple of John, as stating this in writing around the year 125: “Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote accurately, though not in order, all that he remembered of the things said or done by the Lord. For he had neither heard the Lord nor been his follower, but afterward, as I said, he was the follower of Peter, who gave his instructions as circumstances demanded, but not as one giving an orderly account of the words of the Lord. So that Mark was not at fault in writing certain things as he remembered them. For he was concerned with only one thing, not to omit anything of the things he had heard, and not to record any untruth in regard to them.”
We know that Mark was born in Jerusalem and that his mother’s name was Mary. The first Christians used her house as a meeting place. It was there Peter sought refuge after being miraculously freed from prison (Acts 12:12). Quite probably the apostle himself baptised Mark in his own home; he refers to Mark as his son (1Pet. 5:1), and some authorities identify Mark’s house with the cenacle.
Mark accompanied Paul on his first apostolic journey, around the year 45, but after reaching Perga in Pamphylia he headed back to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). At the time of Paul’s second journey Barnabas took Mark, his cousin, on a separate journey. A few years later Mark joined Peter, who gave him a first-hand account of “all that Jesus said and did.” The Holy Spirit used this to inspire him to write the Gospel which bears his name; it was probably written about the year 60.
Mark addressed his Gospel to Christians of Gentile origin living in Rome, but, of course, being a Gospel it had a universal purpose—the spread of the good news of salvation to all the nations. Within the framework of the gift of inspiration, Mark’s aim was not so much to show that Jesus was the promised Messiah (which was Matthew’s approach in writing for Jews, because he wanted to show how the Old Testament promises had been fulfilled in Jesus); his aim, rather, was to give an account of Christ’s life based on what he had heard directly from Peter. Therefore he lays the emphasis on those events or miracles which will help the Roman Christians to see more clearly the divinity of Jesus, in whom they already believed.
Mark insists so much on our Lord’s miracles that he omits, for example, the Sermon on the Mount and many parables which Jesus used to explain important.aspects of the hierarchical organization and life of the Church. This, perhaps, is why his Gospel has been called “the gospel of miracles.” Despite its brevity (16 chapters) he deals with almost all the miracles referred to by the other evangelists, but he adds two which they do not report–the curing of the deaf and dumb man (7:32-37) and of the blind man whom Jesus cured with his saliva (8:22-26).
Mark tries to show (this is part of divine revelation) that Jesus was able to work all these miracles (healing of the sick, control of the elements, authority over unclean spirits, etc.) because he was the Son of God, the supreme master and lord of all creation. Anyone who reads this Gospel in a spirit of faith and sees the wonderful range of supernatural phenomena it contains will be inclined to exclaim like the centurion at the foot of the cross, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (15:39).
The scribes and Pharisees argued that if Jesus really were the Messiah he would always obey the Mosaic Law, even when working miracles. But when one of them asked, for example, “Which commandment is the first of all?” (12:28), Jesus replied by making the law subject to himself and by interpreting it with full authority: “The first is, `Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (12:29-31).
Jesus, as befits the Son of God, enunciates this first commandment in all its force and purity, while joining it inseparably to the second commandment, which he quotes according to Leviticus 19:18. But now he no longer limits it to a provincial, nationalist Jewish context. As he tells them in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), “neighbor” for him means anyone in need of help. There are no exceptions. This is why he has come: He wants to heal everyone, to save everyone.
Mark lays his main stress on the importance of prayer, especially at three key moments in Jesus’ life–at the beginning of his public ministry (1:35), after the multiplication of the loaves (6:46), and at the beginning of his passion in Gethsemani (14:32). On these three occasions Jesus goes away to a private place to speak alone to his Father. This is the prayer of the beloved Son of God in whom the Father is well pleased (1:11). By giving us this example, our Lord wants to teach us how a son of God should pray: It should be filial, trusting conversation which we can have at any time, in any situation. In addition to praising God and asking him for graces, prayer must above all aim at identifying our will with that of our Father.
We can see this very clearly in Christ’s prayer at Gethsemane (Mark 14:32). Jesus goes off again to be alone. He addresses his Father, calling him Abba, a name which shows Jesus’ spiritual childhood and his absolute conviction that he is being listened to. His human nature reacts against what he sees is going to happen—the chalice of pain; yet, in his prayer and as a result of his prayer, he identifies his human will with his divine will in the unity of his own Person (as Thomas Aquinas puts it), for that is the aim of all prayer—to identify our will with God’s and to do so in a free and ready manner, full of love, as befits a son of God.
By revealing this high point of divine sonship, Mark, aided by the gift of inspiration, wants to stress the central thing in Jesus’ life–the fact that he is the Redeemer. Readers may be surprised to see how, despite Jesus’ very explicit miracles, the Son of God, in the full light of day and in the presence of crowds of people, was rejected by the very people he had come to save. Indeed, they went as far as to cause his death.
Jesus is scourged and put to death. Superficially, the crucifixion might seem to be the great failure of Christ, but Mark immediately explains that it was necessary for Christ to suffer this ignominy, with the scourging, insults, and pain, in order to ransom men from the slavery of sin (10:45). The Jewish people were wrong, therefore, in expecting a victorious warrior-Messiah who would liberate them from the Roman yoke as if he were an earthly king. They failed to see in Jesus the meek and humble Servant whom Isaiah had foretold, who would come to serve and not to be served, who chose to save us by way of pain and self-denial, even to the extremity of giving his life, as a spotless lamb, out of love for men. Jesus’ apparent failure was turned into victory over the prince of this world. Finally, through his Resurrection, the greatest miracle of all, Jesus proved both his divinity and the Father’s acceptance of his sacrifice.
The Christian life, the life which truly leads to heaven, necessarily involves the acceptance of the cross. Through their failure to understand these words—”a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23)—many people reject happiness. As Fr. Escriva said, “They have no wish to know anything about the cross of Christ. They think it is sheer madness. But in fact it is they who are insane, for they are slaves of envy, gluttony and sensuality. They end up suffering far more, and only too late do they realize they have squandered both their earthly and their eternal happiness in exchange for meaningless trifles.”