Dear Brothers, as this season in the world continues to unfold, I think there is no hyperbole in saying we live during an apocalyptic moment. No, not the end of the world (though, surely the end of a world), but an apocalypse in the purest sense: an unveiling or uncovering. Apo, to take away; kalypto, veil; apokalyptein, to remove the veil. Innumerable dimensions of a great global illusion now appear uncovered, revealing arrangements born of what proves to be an unsustainable way of life. For some, this period of epidemic is seen as a mere annoyance, an interruption; the sooner we return to the way things were, the sooner we can get on with our own projects, plans, and dreams of infinite growth and material security. For others, however, the apocalypsis of this season reveals the inevitable result of a way of life inherently at odds with the limits of nature and the poverty of our humanity. Now, with the kalypto plainly removed, we find ourselves confronted with urgent realities, larger than coronavirus, larger than individual or national dreams; realities as sharp as life and death. Realities that ask us to change our minds—that is, repent.
Today we remember St Mark the Evangelist, whom tradition remembers as John Mark, a disciple of St Peter. Mark, whoever he was, writes to a community in the very midst of apocalypse. His is the first gospel we have in any written form, and we find it permeated with the literary cues of apocalyptic language. The narrative is urgent and fast-paced as Mark seeks to uncover something for his hearers. Indeed, one of the most frequent words in this gospel is immediately. It not only moves quickly, but also seems mysteriously to imitate the confusing velocity with which the reign of God began its invasion of the world through that most unique and mysterious uncovering: Christ crucified.
From beginning to end, these sixteen chapters pull us along an enigmatic narrative that never seems to slow down and never seems to stop asking its hearers about their own fears, anxieties, and assumptions about God’s kingdom project. Mark’s Jesus upends his contemporaries’ deeply held visions of God’s decisive action in the world and that action’s subsequent fruit in human lives.
Throughout Mark’s narrative, the disciples of Jesus—and, by extension, us today—receive a less than stellar treatment. Yet this should not frustrate us on the one hand or cause us to assume we know any better than they did on the other. Mark gives us painfully human disciples. They are often scared; they seem to misunderstand Jesus at every crucial juncture; they are constantly confused or bewildered, captive to their egos, temptations to power and material security, and the whole matrix of worldly assumptions and expectations that overstate such goods. Phrases like hard hearted, unfaithful, and they misunderstood predominate descriptions of Jesus’ little band.
Mark, appealing to his own hearers’ similarities to the disciples, is trying to get them to pay attention to what is being uncovered for them in their own time. Mark’s community—the community for whom this gospel was written—likely lived through the violent revolt of the late 60s CE, which climaxed in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. In the midst of this violence, some thought Christ was returning. But Mark asks us to see something else. While the world believes a divine glory and material peace will come through righteous violence, Mark takes urgent pains to point our gaze squarely at the crucified Son of God.
As odd as this frequently seems to me, I cannot even imagine how foolish and scandalous such a revelation must have been for an audience so thoroughly schooled (Jew and Gentile alike) in the virtue of righteous violence, human designs for material peace, and the constant temptation to revenge blood for blood. But Mark insists that here, in the human body of the crucified Son, God has definitively removed the veil and shown the world what God’s reign actually looks like. A giving away of self that answers the violence and self-centeredness of the world with forgiveness. A power made perfect in weakness, suffering the infliction of evil to disarm and swallow it up in the ever-greater divine love.
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