Some say that in writing his gospel Mark invented the ‘novel’. The meaning of this word is something new, strange, unusual, a new story. I love the quote from Stendhal’s book Life of Henry Brulard: ‘A novel is like a violin bow; the box which gives off the sounds is the soul of the reader.’ When we proclaim the words of THE ‘novel’, we give off the sounds of our soul. That is why it is important that those of us who proclaim the Word of God need to pray with the snippet of the ‘new story’ to which we are giving voice.
Mark is useful for our multicultural society as he is writing for a mixed community. Being a narrative helps because such a genre speaks into our contemporary scene out of the past.
An incident from the first day of Jesus’ ministry is a good example of how part of the narrative speaks from the exclusivism of Jesus’ time into our time. The healing of the man with the unclean spirit is followed by the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. One is done in the synagogue, the other in a house; one is of a man, the other of a woman. Both are done on the Sabbath. Jesus is speaking into the exclusiveness and burdens of the social fabric of his time. These healings are symbols of ‘correct’ ministry to which we are invited.
A cultural reading of this gospel displaces much of our ‘certainty’ style, our intellectual simplicity, our stereotyping, our exclusive self-sufficiency and any dominating attitudes that we might hold. We are called to convert to a puzzling ‘mindfulness’.
Mark, the first to write a gospel (65-70 CE), set out to engage his community with the mission of Jesus. He wrote to insiders to give a certain theology, to speak into pastoral concerns of his community and time. The gospel’s universal mission is not so much the issue for Mark as dealing with the mixed aspect of his society. His gospel is a mission document for the diverse community which directed and authorised the community’s life on the basis of being authentic to the mission of Jesus.
Mark made a quilt of the oral tradition memories inherited by diverse people and patched together material of his choosing to serve the needs of his community. The novel that he invented spoke from the past into the contemporary scene. The beauty of the dynamic of such narrative is that it also does this for us today – it interprets our contemporary situation to direct, to authorise, to renew our mission as followers, as disciples of the Christ.
Mark’s purpose for his community, and for us, is to show that the heritage of Jesus is about the boundary-breaking mission of Jesus. He ‘began’ with his community; he ‘continues’ with us!
Fr Anthony Kain is facilitator with the Office for Worship and parish priest of Glenelg and Plympton.