If, in 68 AD, after writing his Gospel, Mark had brought it to a bookseller in Rome and asked him to put it in the catalog, he would have found it difficult to choose among which works to place it.
Among the biographies of famous men? No. Although all focused on the character, Jesus, it is devoid of elements that normally appear in a biography. There is a lack of information about his birth, his family, the cultural environment in which he grew up. His way of thinking, his psychology, his personality are not explored. He comes up as an adult, taking for granted that everyone knows that he is a Jew who lived at the time of the emperor Tiberius.
The Gospel of Mark is not comparable to the myths. Jesus was a healer, but his story is not lost, as that of Aesculapius, in time, and his death and resurrection is not a re-release of that of Osiris, Adonis and Tammuz. Jesus was a real man, a carpenter by profession, sentenced to death for sedition by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate and executed on a cross. Some of his disciples claimed later that he was still alive (Acts 25:19).
Not even the shelf where the books that narrate the deeds of the heroes like Alexander the Great and Hannibal are collected is the right place for the Gospel of Mark. Jesus did not lead the glorious military campaigns that have made Caesar and Octavian famous.
Could he be counted among the masters of wisdom? Great sages were expected to address the death in a heroic way as Socrates or with the fortitude of spirit of Seneca who, just at the time when Mark was writing his book, took his own life. But Jesus—Porphyry the skeptic declared—“took no strong and bold speech, but allowed himself to be insulted as a street rogue.” The wondrous works attributed to him could not attract the interest of savvy readers as those educated in the schools of the empire’s capital.
The Gospel of Mark is not categorized in any of the known literary genres and this should be kept in mind to avoid the mistake of considering it a “Life of Jesus.”
It is the story of a journey: the protagonist enters scene by the Jordan, moves to Capernaum where he calls the first disciples and begins a journey with them, first along the roads of Galilee, later in the direction toward Jerusalem.
To read the Gospel of Mark means to get involved personally in this journey:
I have journeyed with you and in this book I picked up the experience we lived together, what we have said and the emotions we felt “along the way.”
While writing these pages, I was never alone. You were also there in my study. I watched every gesture of Jesus, paying attention to his every word. Then I turned to you to tell you his message. I helped you to grasp the biblical references of his words. I did point out the references to the history and culture of Israel and the people of the ancient Middle East. I studied your responses to see if you had gotten the message. Often I resumed the conversation to make it clearer. I formulated it with a different language, resorting to new images and introducing you in the heart of Jesus, the most extraordinary man, indeed the only one.
The Master twice gave a bit long speeches. He preferred to speak through his works and deeds.
The first speech did not bore you. We were sitting by the lake of Gennesaret, in the wonderful frame of the Galilean hills which in the spring are covered with crimson anemones and in summer intoxicated with the scent of myrtle, mint and sweet with the fragrance of the henna’s pretty cobs; from a boat on which he was sitting, Jesus told us three parables (Mk 4). The second speech, in Jerusalem (Mk 13), was more challenging because the language and images he used were apocalyptic. I noticed your confusion. You had the impression that by announcing the “end of the world,” he wanted to inspire fear. However I explained to you that he invited you to the joy and hope and then your faces lit up.
Along the way we met a lot of people, good and evil persons, not all equally important. I suggested to you to observe especially the Twelve, to consider their behavior and assess their ideals, because they were yours, they were of every person. Their way of thinking always seemed logical to you. You shared their concerns in front of the unconditional condemnation of divorce, their failure to understand the request of giving life, their rejection of a world in which the heads must serve. You thought their reactions were reasonable, but when the Master intervened with severe reproaches, immediately you were aware of distancing yourselves from the path.
We walked in the synagogues and in private homes. We saw Jesus sitting at the table with sinners, moved by the lepers and angry with those who gave importance to compliance with the law than to the good of man. We witnessed his heated disputes with the representatives of the religious institution and his gestures of tenderness toward children, the marginalized, impure women and the paralytic, symbol of sinful humanity.
Jesus is always on the move and just walking with him, one can discover his face. Those claiming to already know him, remain firm on their position and do not renounce their preconceived ideas, will never seize his true identity. He is always beyond our findings, always beyond our expectations.
Walking with him is a bit ‘like the walk of two lovers;’ dating, they gradually know each other, love each other and, the more time passes, the more they find that they are made for each other and not able to live one without the other.
It is better to reflect before embarking on this journey. Jesus also recommends it (Lk 14:25-33).
If you walk with him, be careful, because it is almost inevitable that he will conquer your heart. Once he makes you fall in love, you not be able to break away from him. You can try hard to forget him, betray him, but he will attract you again. He will make you go back to him and you will not be able to live without him. Paul had this experience. Conquered by Christ, he exclaimed: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom 8:35).
Think before you embark on a journey because, after having made you fall in love, Jesus will ask you to risk all, life included.
A wayfarer approached the disciples at Emmaus, and along the way, he explained the Scriptures to them. In the evening, the two said to each other: “Were not our hearts filled with ardent yearning when he was talking to us on the road and explaining the Scriptures?” (Lk 24:32).
Well, every week, on the day of the Lord, the Christian community will placed herself beside you and, by taking her hand and “starting with Moses and going through the prophets,” she will explain to you the Scriptures concerning Him (Lk 24:27). She will let you know his mind (1 Cor 2:16) and his attitudes (Phil 2:5).
The trip will be exciting, but also exhausting and often you will be tempted to fall back on the reasoning of people and to take the more comfortable and spacious roads. You do not do it because the spell would end. You will fall back in the narrow world of meanness and frivolity and you’ll distance yourselves from the Lord.
A young man, dressed in a white robe, on Easter morning ordered the women who had gone to the tomb: “Now go and tell his disciples and Peter: Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee; you will see him there” (Mk 16:7).
After reaching the destination, Jerusalem, you too will have to go back to Galilee, that is, to return to everyday life. As you carry out your daily activities, the Risen One, who always walks beside you, will manifest himself, but you will see him only if, “along the road,” you will be accompanied by someone who explains the Scriptures to you … with words that warm the heart.
This is what I have proposed with this book.
However, with this guide in hand or another, don’t miss this trip.
Advent and Christmas
To fulfill the mission of “spreading the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like an aroma” (2 Cor 2:14), the Church has divided the year into parts—called liturgical seasons—each of which has a big feast as its reference point.
The year is thus marked by a succession of festivals that are meant to make us contemplate, one by one, all aspects of the mystery of Christ, “from the Incarnation and Nativity to the Ascension, to Pentecost and the awaiting of the blessed hope of the coming of the Lord” (SC 102).
Christmas and Advent
The calendar year begins on January 1 but the liturgy follows another calendar wherein the year starts with the first Sunday of Advent. It seems logical, in fact, that the events of the character’s life are presented from the day of his birth.
But it was not so from the beginning of the Church. In the first century, Christians had no other feast outside of the weekly celebration of the resurrection of the Lord. On the first day of the week—until Constantine continued to be called the day of the sun and it was a working day—they used to get together to hear the word of God, to celebrate the Eucharist and in the early years, to have a meal in common. Then they all returned to their homes, giving the till we meet again the following Sunday.
It was not long and the Church felt the need to dedicate one day of the year for the commemoration of the culminating events of Jesus’ life, so Easter was established. In the middle of the second century this feast was already spread to all Christian communities. But one day only to celebrate Christ’s resurrection seemed little. Then they thought of prolonging the joy of this feast for seven weeks, the fifty-days of Pentecost.
The celebration of Christmas in the Christian calendar came much later. In 354 A.D. December 25 was the date set to commemorate the birth of Jesus. Obviously no document was found in the registry of Nazareth—we know neither the day nor the exact year in which Jesus was born—the choice comes from the fact that on this exact date Rome celebrated the feast of the winter solstice and the approaching spring. It was a festival with irrepressible joy because the sun was beginning to shine.
In the first centuries the Church used to re-interpret, rather than suppress, the pagan rites and ceremonies. So it was that the Christians, instead of banning crusade against the licentiousness of the Saturnalia, they changed the name and meaning of the feast of the unconquered sun. They said: Jesus is the sun “who comes from on high as a rising sun, shining on those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Lk 1:79); He is “the true light that enlightens every one” (Jn 1:9) and the “radiant morning star” (Rev 22:16).
The artist who made the first Christian mosaic in Rome—the mausoleum of the Julii, in the Vatican cemetery (250 AD) which depicts Christ on the chariot of the sun—understood it.
Around the year 600 AD, Christians believed that the celebration of Christmas should be preceded by a time of preparation. This led to the Sundays of Advent and it was decided to begin the liturgical year with the first of these Sundays, therefore, at the end of November or early December.
What does Advent mean?
With this word, the pagans pointed to the coming of their god. In a given day of the year they worshipped his exhibited statue, believing that he would make himself present among his faithful, ready to deliver his blessings and grant his favors. The word Advent also referred to the visit of a king to a city, or the coronation day of the king.
The Christians applied these meanings to their God’s coming into the world. He was manifested in Jesus though they reserved the name Advent to the period dedicated to preparation for this visit.
At this point someone might rightly ask: but Jesus has already come? Why then prepare as if he would come again?
Christmas is not the birthday of Jesus nor Advent the time to prepare it. The pagans were the ones who prepared themselves thus for the feast of the unconquered sun.
God’s ways are not our ways
One can expect a friend and not meet him. It happens when one goes to the wrong place or misses the time of appointment.
It also happens with God.
He has already come many times in human history. He showed the place where he could be met. Perhaps we have not understood well, because we end up waiting for him where he does not come.
I try to list a few places where we waited for him. We would like him to come in our sickness to give us health; in financial difficulties to solve them with a stroke of luck; in moments of solitude to make us meet the person with whom we can have a rapport; in failure to help us re-emerge and triumph; in injustice to enforce our rights; in old age to restore to us a little vigor, freshness, youthful clarity … We intensely pray to him; we try to introduce him in our narrow horizons, to involve him in our projects; we urge him not to miss the appointment. Lost, we scan the horizon, and he does not appear. He almost always disappoints, displaces and disorients us.
At Birkenau, on Christmas Day, a group of women is led to the gas chamber. They try to escape but were slaughtered en masse. Faced with this scene, the son of a rabbi cries out: “God show them your power; everything is against you.” Nothing happens. The guy then says, “God does not exist.”
We ask God to show his strength, and he appears on a cross. We want to win with him and for him, and he chooses defeat.
He never comes to fit himself into our dreams, but to realize his dreams. It is not easy to have an appointment with him, to understand the way, the time, the purpose of his comings. We need to be watchful, attentive, to check, to examine our hopes and expectations to see if they coincide with what he offers us.
In the darkness of the primal chaos God came to bring his light (Jn 1:1-2). On the night of infertility he came to Abraham to offer his covenant and to promise him descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven (Gen 15). “While all was in quiet silence and the night was in the middle of its course” (Wis 18:14), he visited his people and freed them from the bondage of Pharaoh.
He comes to brighten our nights: he comes in moments of loss and pain, alienation and despair, humiliation and abandonment and introduces us to his peace. He comes especially in the darkness produced by incense we burn on the altars of our idols—those foolish creatures we deify—money, success, health, children, learning, friendships …
They prevent us from living: they demand, exact, condition, afflict us up to depriving us of sleep and breath. We suffer and we struggle, but we remain loyal to those chains that keep us slaves. Jesus came to set us free, but we need to get ourselves ready and wait for him on the streets where he usually goes.