…and just as he was coming up out of the water, her saw the heavens torn apart… (Mk. 1:10)
…and the curtain of the Temple was torn in two… (Mk. 15:38)
Advent is here and begins this coming weekend, and with Advent comes a shift in the lectionary readings on Sunday morning from the Gospel of Matthew to the Gospel of Mark. So for Advent 2011 and all of 2012 (to the end of November) our Gospel readings will come primarily from the Gospel of Mark (with a little John thrown in here and there). Mark is unique in a variety of ways and this year of Mark provides us with important opportunities for growth and understanding. Mark is considered to be the earliest Gospel of the three synoptic Gospels and was probably written around the time of the Jewish War that eventually culminated in the annihilation of Jerusalem and the complete destruction of the Temple. This was a very difficult time for Jews and Christians alike living in Israel. When the dust finally settled the Jewish people have been driven into exile and the center of the fledgling Christian church moved from Jerusalem to the competing centers of Rome, Antioch and Alexandria.
This background helps us to understand Mark and also, I believe, gives us a point of contact. These were hard times and one issue that is central in the Gospel of Mark is the issue of hunger and bread. Starvation was a constant issue at this time and this is not so different from our own time. There is an amazing amount of hunger which surrounds us. Around the world we see literally millions of people starving to death in places like Somalia, but even in our own country unemployment and raising food prices have brought more and more hunger right to our very doorstep. For the first time in a long time the Peace Food Pantry is struggling to keep up with the demand. The Boy Scout food drive only provided about half of the food that was donated last year even though the need is so much greater now. Hunger is in our midst, just as it was a very real presence for Mark’s own community.
So in the midst of all of this struggle and difficulty and hunger the question that Mark raises is a simple one: Where is God? Where is God to be found? And the answer is pointed to in the passages quoted above – note the bold-face on the word torn. The heavens are torn apart at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and at the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry the curtain in the Temple is also torn in two. The belief was that God resided in the Temple Holy of Holies which was divided from the outside world by a special curtain or veil. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies and stand in the presence of God. The violent ripping of the heavens first and then the temple veil signifies that God will no longer be contained. God is now present with God’s people in the midst of their struggles and misery and hunger. Through Jesus, God enters into the human experience and is especially present with those in need. Through Jesus, God feeds and heals and comforts and loves.
And everything moves us towards the Passion in Mark – so that the Passion of Jesus IS the culmination and the answer to every question. When will the Messiah come? The Messiah has come in Jesus and his coming culminates in the crucifixion. The cross is absolutely central to understanding Mark. In fact, throughout the entire Gospel there is a breathless haste that pervades the telling of the story – until we arrive at the Passion. “Immediately” this and “immediately” that. Jesus is on the move and we literally jump from one thing to the next at a fast pace because we are careening towards the cross!
Also, in Mark, Jesus is fully human in a very unique way, and in a way that is not shared in the other Gospels. In Mark, Jesus has strong emotions, he gets angry, he despairs, he gets tired physically, he even makes mistakes and takes correction; Jesus is not just described as being fully human; Jesus is fully human in a remarkable way that might actually make some uncomfortable. But of course, this is what we confess every week in the creed, even though I suspect few of us have ever thought through the implications of our belief that Jesus was fully human. Well, we get to this year as we explore the Gospel of Mark.
At this time of the year when we are focused on Christmas preparations the introduction of the Gospel of Mark provides us Christians with an important reminder that we, like the disciples have been called to follow the master to the cross. We have been called to not ignore or avert our eyes when we see hunger, unemployment, senseless violence and other examples of human misery and brokenness. Instead we are called to “immediately” recognize that we are defined by the cross of Jesus, that we have responsibility as followers and disciples and God has not abandoned us, but is here, profoundly present with us – especially when we struggle.
To give credit to where credit is due - I spent a day at a seminar on Mark conducted by Eden Seminary New Testament Professor Dr. Deborah Krause. It was a magnificent conference and Mark was opened to me in a way it never had been before.