BY RORY COONEY
DIRECTOR, LITURGY AND MUSIC
Each of the four canonical gospels has its own perspective because each is a collection of traditions about Jesus that has its origins in the memory of a particular church community. While it is not empirically clear aside from tradition where each gospel originated, many scholars agree that Mark was probably written in Rome shortly after 70 CE, the year when Titus destroyed the city of Jerusalem after the uprisings led by Sadduccees and Pharisees in Jerusalem and Zealot forces in Galilee. Mark’s story of Jesus can be shown to have been used by the authors of both Luke and Matthew, in which long passages are taken almost verbatim from Mark, but accommodated to their authors’ theologies and community perspectives by changes in language and detail.
Mark foregoes any introduction to his narrative. Instead, he begins with a quote from Isaiah (and Malachi) that introduces a motif of “the way” that echoes through his gospel. For Mark, God is taking the initiative by entering the human story through Jesus. It is God who is bringing people once again out of exile and bondage, both clearing a path and leading the way. Whereas Torah meant a “teaching” or “doctrine,” by the time Acts of the Apostles was written, “the Way” became a term used by Christians to describe themselves, suggesting an approach to living or a journey taken rather than a creed or dogma.
John receives his ministry from God, and in a gesture of mild rebellion, moves the baptismal rite away from the Jerusalem temple and the pools there that were built for these ritual cleansings and out to the Judean wilderness and the Jordan River, probably also as a reminder about Israel coming across the Jordan into freedom from Egypt a millennium earlier. For John and for Jesus, righteousness before God was not simply a matter of ritual purity and realignment with the Temple. It was a matter of realignment of the heart to the covenant with God. The uniqueness of John may be his disassociation of righteousness from the Temple; part of the uniqueness of Jesus was his insistence that just relationships between people are as important as the relationship with God, and supersede family, cultic, and even national ties.
In today’s gospel we hear three short sentences in a verse (Mark 1:15) that might be thought of as the “theme” of the preaching of Jesus. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” By “time of fulfillment,” Jesus means that the promises of God made by the prophets are being fulfilled through him. The “kingdom of God” means that other “kingdoms” are relativized and cast aside by God’s arrival. Therefore, we are called to “repent,” (i.e. change direction, re-orient our life) and “believe” (i.e., start to lovingly live) in the gospel (i.e., the good news that God is in charge now, and not the oppressors, whoever they may be.)
But Jesus doesn’t just leave it at that. He starts calling people by name, starting with Simon, Andrew, James, and John, all the way through history to us, and says, “Come after me.” That is, follow me. Watch me. Do what I do. And then Jesus just starts freeing people from forces that bind them (exorcism) and healing them from their sickness (in both cases with the expectation that through these actions sufferers would be reintegrated into their families and communities), and then teaching them by his example and word how to stop living for values other than those of the reign of God.
As always, the key for us is to hear the gospel with fresh ears and come to recognize what sorts of forces bind us and those around us. Then we can participate in the ministry of freeing and healing others, and pass along the gospel to them by the example of our lives. This is not a history lesson. The kingdom of God is still right here. God is making a way out of the history of captivity that is our heritage. But we like it here. Sometimes we don’t even know we’re chained up and sick. 2021 is another chance to follow Jesus, to “turn around” and follow the Way to freedom and genuine community.