Reflection – Feast of St Mark
Today we celebrate the Feast of St Mark, the writer of the second Gospel. Mark was the secretary of St Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. As such, it is not inappropriate that his Gospel is sometimes known as ‘the Gospel of St Peter’, for in it is much of Peter’s reminiscences of his time travelling around Galilee, Judea and Samaria in the company of Christ and the other disciples over the course of around three years.
Probably after Peter’s death in Rome, Mark went to Alexandria in Egypt, which had close links with Rome and was home to the largest Jewish community in the world, to preach the Gospel. We can only imagine the impact his words, and those of his own disciples had, but it is an historical fact that by the end of the 1st Century there was a large, vibrant and growing Church in Alexandria, which was to play an enormously important role in the Christian world over the course of the next few centuries.
The colour of today’s feast is red, which serves to remind us that Mark, having faithfully discharged his duties of teaching and preaching, laid down his life as a martyr for his faith in Jesus Christ. A century or so later, a Christian from further West in Roman Africa, Tertullian, wrote that ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’, and Mark may well have been one of those he had in mind in writing this statement.
Today, the Coptic Church of Egypt, descended from St Mark’s original mission and faithful to the witness he displayed through his life, ministry, writings and death, is one of the most actively persecuted Christian bodies in the world. Although technically legal in Egypt, the Church, which comprises around 10% of Egypt’s population, faces considerable obstacles to its life. This is mainly unofficial persecution, but the State does, from time to time, work to make life difficult for the Christians in the country.
For the most part, the main persecutions Christians face are in the rural districts of Egypt, although city centre churches have periodically been the targets for Islamist terrorist bombs, with many hundreds of worshippers slain. Elsewhere, in areas more remote from the gaze of the law, it is far from unknown for Christians to be targeted for rape, to have their throats cut or even to be crucified to the doors of their churches! Such are the times in which they live – but, in truth, it is not very much different from most other times in Egyptian history since the Muslim conquest.
Very often, Western Christians are so obsessed with being ‘nice’, with being tolerant, that we forget that others are far less tolerant than we are. Throughout much of the world, in Muslim lands especially, little or no tolerance is shown to Christians. For one reason or another, we are considered to be an existential threat to the powers that be. Yet this should not surprise us, for Christ repeatedly warned us that this would be the case for his followers.
In these days of a lethal pandemic, it is only natural that our concerns regarding the COVID-19 virus dominate our lives. So many people have become ill and have died from its malignant curse that it is little surprise that it seems to exclude all other concerns, at times, from our daily lives. Yet, as Christians, we need to recall that, although our churches are closed at this time, we live in far better circumstances than millions of our fellow-believers. We are not going to be actively persecuted (at least, not in the same ways) for our Christian faith. It is therefore of great importance that we continue to support these people in prayer and, where possible, financially, at this distressing time.
St Mark taught truth through his Gospel. At the heart of that truth lies the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was a truth for which St Mark gave his whole life and for which he was prepared to lay it down, confident in the certainty that, having himself conquered death, he would bring those who believe in him to that eternal life of God which he truly promises.
Nothing, St Paul reminds us, can separate us from the love of God in Christ – not even death itself. In an age when thoughts of mortality cannot but press on us even more than ever, we need to hold before our eyes the life and witness of St Mark. It is through his preaching and writing, through the truth to which he witnesses, that so many down through the centuries have not only come to believe that Jesus is God incarnate but to realize that he is, indeed, Lord of both Life and Death and the One who brings his people to eternal life with God. That is, indeed, something which gives us great joy and consolation at this time.