AS you may know it is now the custom in the Catholic Church to keep the Second Sunday in Advent as Bible Sunday, an observance borrowed from the Church of England, and a day to think a bit about the place of the Bible in our lives. It’s also a good time to reflect about the gospel from which most of our Sunday readings will be taken for the next year, the gospel of Mark.

We’re not sure who wrote it (as the name Mark isn’t in the actual text); it is usually thought to be the earliest gospel, written probably about AD70. The Evangelist is shown here in a Syrian icon, with writing in Arabic, and traditionally seen as the first bishop in Egypt. The first readers of Mark needed to have Jewish customs explained and it has a hazy geography of Palestine so probably wasn’t written there. It is not only early – it’s shorter and simpler than the other gospels, so it has a ‘raw’ and direct quality, easier to read. It is thought that both Matthew and Luke drew on Mark. Mark is less interested than Luke in the universality of the Christian message for all peoples, and less interested than Matthew in seeing the Church as the new Israel, or Jesus as being like Moses.

The theological message of Mark is straightforward, from its first lines: ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. A clear aim of the writer is to demonstrate that Jesus is the Son of God. Another major theme is the idea of the kingdom of God, which is, as one writer says: ‘The display of God’s lordship at the end of history and its acknowledgement by all creation. Much of Jesus’ teaching (especially the parables) is aimed at deepening the people’s understanding of the coming kingdom and preparing for it. Even his healings appear as anticipations of what life in God’s kingdom will be like. The kingdom is now largely hidden, though in Jesus it is inaugurated and anticipated’.

Another big idea is the conflict with evil. A scholar has written: ‘in this struggle God had been victorious, but in the course of time the evil powers had to some extent reasserted their sway over God’s creation; and so…it was expected that he, or some representative of his, would have to engage a further, and this time finally decisive, struggle against the evil powers’. In Christian moral teaching, the notion of conflict with evil is important. We see it in our everyday lives and our often faltering efforts to lead good lives; moreover in terms of Catholic social teaching the Church’s battle with injustice and violence in the world is a conflict with the sources of evil.

A feature of Mark is the head-banging stupidity of the disciples (toned down in the later gospels), reassuring for the rest of us in view of the mess we often make of things. This feeling of ‘mess’ is part of the stark, raw quality of the gospel. The relationship between the Lord and his disciples is characterised by frustration and their constant failure to understand the Lord’s teaching and ministry. Miracles such as the feeding of the multitude (6:30ff. and 8:1.ff) have to be repeated – because the disciples don’t understand the meaning after the first miracle, as we are told by the evangelist after Jesus has walked on water (6:52: ‘Their minds were closed.’).

We can see the same denseness over the well-known parables of the sower (4:1ff.): the people have to make do with the parables which they may not find easy to understand, and the disciples get the pains-taking explanation. This repeated failure is contrasted from an early stage with the opposition Jesus arouses from others. The message of Jesus in Mark is deeply unsettling and disturbing; it challenges and arouses antagonism early on; but his closest followers seem to be in dark for so much of the time. We can see how exasperated Jesus gets: ‘Why are you so frightened? Have you still so little faith?’ he says after the calming of the storm in chapter 4; or again, after talking about clean and unclean foods he says wearily ‘Even you – don’t you under-stand? Can’t you see…?’ (7:17). When we mess things up we’re in good company. This frustration on Jesus’ part is evident in his dealings with the Pharisees at 8:10ff, demanding of him a sign. Instead of a sign they get a ‘profound sigh’.

This sense of failure and frustration also can also shed a rather harsh light on the odd ending of the original text of the Gospel after the resurrection (16:8 – what comes later in your texts was added later). Those who had failed Jesus again and again through the gospel are simply afraid when the tomb is found to be empty – that’s it!

So try in the next year simply to get to know the gospel of Mark.