MEETING GOD IN MARK: Reflections for the Season of Lent. By Rowan Williams. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014. IX + 86 pages.
The Gospel of Mark is the briefest of the four canonical Gospels. It begins suddenly with an account of the ministry of John the Baptizer, who has been called by God in the Wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. His ministry culminates in the baptism of Jesus, who comes to the Jordan from Nazareth in Galilee. The Gospel ends with an equally sudden visit to an empty tomb by Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome, who see a young man at the entrance of the tomb, and then flee. Mark has neither an infancy narrative nor resurrection appearances. It has few accounts Jesus’ teaching ministry, and focuses a third of its length on the passion narrative – a larger portion than any of the other Gospels. So what do we make of this Gospel? It is sparse and direct. It has never had the popularity of Matthew and Luke, whose Gospels seem to expand the narrative, nor that of John, which has its own sense of the story. And yet, many scholars believe it is the first Gospel written, and therefore has an influence on the way the story gets told from then on.
Perhaps reading the Gospel of Mark would be a good spiritual exercise for the season of Lent? If we are to take such a journey it would be helpful to have a knowledgeable guide. This small book written by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, provides a helpful guide to the story – its origins and its purpose. The book which is a mere three chapters long, and includes a study guide for a three-session study, along with a Lenten reading guide that takes one through the entire Gospel during Lent. The chapters were originally presented as Holy Week talks given by the Archbishop at Canterbury in 2010. Originally published by SPCK, the book is now made available in the United States by WJK Press. While he hopes that his ruminations are not at odds with contemporary scholarship, he doesn’t feel bound by scholarly consensus. His aim “has been simply to offer suggestions for a slow reading of what notoriously feels like a rushed and packed text” (p. vii).
In the first chapter, Williams delves into the question of the origins of this Gospel. Who might the author be and why did this particular story get written? While Williams acknowledges that contemporary scholarship questions the traditional account of the Gospel’s origin with Peter, he believes there is something credible about that tradition. While the Gospels are all written anonymously, it seems clear that the writer of this Gospel has inside knowledge and experience. Williams suggests that reading Acts and other accounts of the early church that Mark, who accompanied Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey, has deep roots in the Jerusalem Church, and so it’s not inconceivable that a person like him could have been close to Peter. One of the clues is the mention of Simon of Cyrene, the man who carries Jesus’ cross. Mark records that he is father of Alexander and Rufus, suggesting that these two men were well known to the audience. While Williams doesn’t try to push the issue, he raises the question of whether or not Mark is a near eye-witness to much of the story, and if not an eye-witness, connected to eye-witnesses. Mark writes sparingly, without providing background information. He simply puts Jesus on the stage as the central figure – “no prelude, no apologies, no explanations, there is the anointed one.” While some have thought of this as being a straightforward account, Williams suggests that “this Jesus is arguably stranger, more ‘transcendent’, more simply worrying than the Jesus of any of the other Gospels” (p. 25).
Mark is often known for presenting a Jesus who is reticent to make his true calling known to the broader public. There is this sense of a messianic secret that only the Disciples are introduced to, but even they find it difficult to comprehend. Jesus continually tells the Disciples not to make know what they have perceived about him, though they always seem to fail at this. He does miracles not to call attention to himself, but because his compassion is engaged. The secret that Mark discloses, according to Williams, is that the God whom Jesus reveals does not “coerce belief or clinch arguments, but who repeatedly demands relation and trust” (p. 39). Mark’s Gospel, his good news, is about the relationship that Jesus seeks to inculcate. The twists and turns of Mark’s Gospel, with Jesus’ reticence about his own identity, is meant to reveal a different kind of God than most of us conceive of. According to Williams, “He is the God at the ground of everything, who works outwards from the heart of being – not that the change is any less radical or real because of that” (p. 50).
In the final chapter Williams turns to the Passion, which is the heart of Mark’s Gospel. One-third of the story is focused on this one event. What had seemed rushed and scattered, now slows down so that the hearer of the story can meditate on the betrayal, the death, and the burial of Jesus. Williams notes that there are more quotations from the Old Testament, along with more specificity regarding places in the area around Jerusalem, even a careful reference to the time of day that the crucifixion occurred. It is written in a way to invite prayer and meditation on the fact of the cross. And as we draw in closer, we begin to notice that Mark is portraying Jesus as becoming increasingly more visibly alone – “repudiated by more and more persons and groups,” with Jesus’ final words in the Gospel being “my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” As the story progresses, Jesus begins to stand out more and more apart from everyone else (pp. 55-56). Williams notes that this is the story of a “lifelong passion.” The insight we gain from the story is this:
God is not where you thought he was; God is in and with this mortal man, who is helpless and about to suffer a terrible death. This is where God chooses to be and to declare himself; and the Gospel is the echo of that divine self-declaration (p. 61).
The ending of the Gospel doesn’t resolve the tension in the story. The Tomb is empty but Jesus doesn’t appear to anyone. Attempts, of course, have been made to rectify this problem, but it doesn’t appear that these reflect Mark’s intentions. Williams writes:
The text as it stands tells us that speaking about faith will never be easy, because, when the first announcement of the truth was made, the witnesses couldn’t cope. Just as with the stupidity of the apostles throughout the Gospel, the reader’s own bewilderment and incomprehension is signaled in advance. Don’t be surprised if you can’t manage to get your head around this: it always was this way” (p. 68).
We want an easily digestible message. We like simple formulas, such as simplistic atonement theories, but the Gospel is not simple, nor is the God revealed in the crucified one whose empty tomb stands as a witness to the God who comes not in power and glory, but through the ministrations of one hung on a cross.
In closing the book, Williams returns to the tradition that Peter stands behind this Gospel. He notes:
Peter stands for all the human characters whom Jesus confronts, the apostles, the witnesses, the Church, ourselves. He is us; brought to nothing by his inability to hear and receive the transfiguring presence of God in the helpless and condemned Jesus, but called afresh out of his own chaos to the task of finding words for the mystery. Perhaps it really is after all the Gospel of Peter; and if it is the Gospel of Peter, we can be sure it is the gospel for all of us. (pp. 73-74).
Reading the Gospel of Mark in a meditative fashion could be rather beneficial as a Lenten discipline. With this book, we have a most helpful introduction to that Gospel so that we might be attentive to the voice emanating from it. It invites us to step out of triumphalism and enter the strange world of Jesus. As is often true with books written by Rowan Williams it is thoughtful and provocative. It shows awareness of both scholarship and tradition. While scholarly in his training and approach, he understands that there is more to the story than scholarship alone can discern. The Gospel of Mark invites us to delve into the relational dimensions of Jesus and the God whom he reveals. Highly recommended for the Lenten season!