St. Mark the Zealous

The young man who left his “Mark” on the Bible

St. Mark the Zealous

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"MMaaarrrrrrkkkkkkkkk!” She shouted, letting all in our suburban utopia know that my presence was needed at home immediately. I could always tell when my mother was worried about my whereabouts.

Was it that, as the fifth of six kids in an Irish-German Catholic family, I had developed such keen sensory observation skills? No, my mother had the uncanny knack of turning my one-syllable name into a multisyllable exclamation that would make even neighborhood dogs flee in terror.

In those moments, I lamented my lot as St. Mark’s namesake. I mean, my older brothers could claim devil slayers like St. Michael, snake charmers like St. Patrick, or even St. Francis, whom animals spontaneously trusted. And there I was, stuck with good old, unexciting Mark. To my young, sarcastic mind, the only upside was that Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four, giving me hope that our school Mass might be shorter whenever Mark was read. (Alas, my liturgical arithmetic was off: a shorter gospel book never meant a shorter gospel proclamation—or homily.)

It wasn’t until my high school years that a youth minister opened my eyes to the gift my mother and father had given me through my name.

What’s in a Name? None of the Evangelists signed their writings, but our earliest manuscripts of the second Gospel have the heading “according to Mark.” It’s impossible to know for sure who this author was, but he is traditionally identified as the “John Mark” who appears in the Acts of the Apostles (12:12, 25; 15:37). Though John was his Hebrew name, he became better known by his Roman name, Mark (Marcus), and for good reason.

Like the Greeks before them, the Romans had more gods than McDonald’s has french fries. The name “Mark” derives from one of these: Mars, the Roman god of war. How blessedly different my early childhood would have been if someone had told me that my name signifies “mighty warrior.” That little tidbit would have proven very useful on the dodgeball court.

Why, though, would the Evangelist go by his Roman name as he sought to spread the good news of Christ? If he was a Jewish Christian from Jerusalem, why not highlight his Hebrew heritage? Was it to avoid being confused with the better known “John, the son of Zebedee”? Again, we can only speculate.

Man with a Mission. We do know, though, that God designs each of us with a specific mission. For Mark, that mission involved strengthening a community in crisis. Most likely, his core audience and first readers were Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians living in imperial Rome. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Mark’s words would bring hope to these Christians, who endured years of harsh persecution after the great fire of a.d. 64 under Nero.

It makes sense, then, that Mark portrays Jesus as a wonder-working mighty warrior—a perfect combination of divine power and mercy. You won’t find Jesus giving many lengthy teachings here, nor will you find the “background story” of his birth, as in Matthew and Luke. No, especially in the first half of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is a divinely effective person, performing miracles and casting out demons at every turn of the page.

In the second half, we see Jesus attacked, abandoned, and even “troubled and distressed” (Mark 14:33)—a portrayal that would have struck a chord with Rome’s persecuted Christians. Even so, Mark never downplays Jesus’ sovereign majesty. It is in his Gospel, more than in the other three, that Jesus most clearly affirms his identity as “the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One” (14:61). And note, too, that the first person to proclaim Jesus as “the Son of God” is not a Jew but the Roman centurion at the cross (Mark 15:39). His inspired declaration must have raised more than a few Roman brows.

The Saints behind the Saint. Through St. Mark’s pen, the Holy Spirit breathes urgency throughout this Gospel. In fact, the Greek word for “immediately” appears over forty times in just sixteen short chapters. Perhaps this tone of passion and urgency reflects something about the author as well as his message. One must wonder, however, where all this passion came from, since Mark was not one of the twelve apostles.

If Mark was indeed the “John Mark” of Acts, he was a close relative of St. Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). But it was his relationship with two other saints—Peter and Paul—that gave this Evangelist his credibility and information.

There is a solid ancient tradition that Mark was a disciple of Peter. In the First Letter of Peter, he is referred to intimately as “Mark, my son” (5:13). Also, Mark’s Gospel includes unique details that may reflect Peter’s eyewitness information (Mark 4:35-38; 5:38-41). It even seems to be structured along the lines of Peter’s preaching in Acts 10:36-43.

John Mark’s relationship with St. Paul was not such smooth sailing, at least initially. The young disciple set out as an assistant to Paul on the apostle’s first missionary journey but cut his trip short, for some unknown reason. (Was he a bit of a hothead? Stubborn? I could relate to that.) Whatever happened, Paul viewed it as desertion and refused to take Mark along on his next trip (Acts 13:5, 13; 15:37-39). Eventually, the two were reconciled, and Mark went on to become one of Paul’s trusted co-workers (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24; 2 Timothy 4:11).

What I see in Mark, then, is the portrait of a sincere but spiritually immature disciple—fueled by a passionate love for Christ, but still susceptible to moments of self-centeredness and stubbornness. But here’s what encourages me: Mark shared the good news of Jesus with everyone he encountered, even as he grew in virtue. He didn’t wait until he was perfect.

From this angle, I see a lot of myself in St. Mark. I’ve preached the gospel for the past twenty years—traveling far and wide, writing books and hosting radio shows. I do this not because I have it all figured out but, rather, because I don’t. Like my namesake, I preach not because I have nothing left to learn but because there is nothing and no one better for me to share. I want everyone to experience the love and the mercy of Christ and his Church (myself very much included).

The Gray beneath the Halo. Popular tradition holds that St. Mark was martyred in Alexandria, where he served as a bishop, in the second half of the first century. But his remains are said to rest in Venice, Italy, in the basilica that bears his name.

What inspires me more than St. Mark’s mysterious death, however, is his fully surrendered life for Christ. A passionate young missionary who becomes a skilled Evangelist and wise leader—Mark is the quintessential role model for us who struggle to live as committed Christians today. I find not only my own story in the life of St. Mark, but the stories of many of the teens and young adults I try to share the gospel with every day.

Introduced to Christ and his Church at a young age, raised in the faith but seeking to find their own way and tread their own path—this is the young Church to whom I minister. They are passionate, at times immature. Yet they are hungry for truth, seeking holiness, and willing to serve and to share truth even in settings where they will be mocked, despised, and (socially) martyred for it. This is the young Catholic Church I see—willing to walk, but needing guides and mentors, as St. Mark did.

While you may not be as courageous as St. Peter or as zealous as St. Paul, make no mistake: you know Christ, too, and the witness of your words and your life plays an indispensible role in raising up the next generation of Catholics.

Affirm the young people you see at Mass on Sundays. Offer them a kind word. Express interest in their lives. Thank them for serving at the altar or for paying attention or for singing. It doesn’t have to be a landmark statement—just sincere. By acknowledging them, you will affirm Christ at work in them, just as Peter and Paul did for a young upstart named John Mark, and as a youth minister did for me. Affirmation is more than words. It is a validation of the beauty and presence of God dwelling in the person across from you. The young Church may not remember the homily, but you’d better believe they will remember the kind word you spoke to them. It may feel like a small gesture, but it makes a world of difference in an adolescent’s walk with Christ.

The Story Continues. My mother doesn’t yell my name the same way anymore. These days she just smiles as her son, now a father of little ones, echoes that same urgency when seeking his own kids. She has another tactic, though, which is to use my first and middle names. I’ve adopted that one too. When my kids ask why they have middle names, I reply, “So you will know when your mother and I are not pleased.”

And so on a holiday not too long ago, watching me give in to a moment of sibling-induced immaturity, my mom looked out over her glasses and said, “Mark Joseph!”

But that’s a different saint story for another time…

Mark Hart (www.biblegeek.com) is executive vice president for the Catholic youth movement Life Teen. Two of his books, The “R” Father and Embracing God’s Plan for Marriage, are available from The Word Among Us Press. Mark and his wife, Melanie, have three daughters and live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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