25 April 2008

A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action

I just remembered that today is the Feast of St. Mark, the Evangelist. This is not the sort of thing that I would normally forget, but I'm having trouble keeping track of what day it is. It also doesn't help that I'm in no position over here to celebrate this Feast in the way that I would be doing if I were back home in South Bend. For now, my vocation has taken me from the Ministry of the Table to the Ministry of the Word, and I shall have to be content with confessing the faith in honor of St. Mark, without the opportunity to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, to take up the chalice of salvation and call on the Name of the Lord from His Altar at Emmaus. It is not the first time that I have been in Novosibirsk on this festival day, as it happened that way nine years ago, too.

Interestingly, it was also nine years ago, while I was here in Novosibirsk, that the Lord's Supper working group of the Lutheran Hymnal Project began its careful study and discussion of the early eucharistic rites, including the Anaphora of St. Mark. That great prayer of thanksgiving of the Church in Alexandria was not written by the holy evangelist, but it was named in his honor. Tradition holds that St. Mark took the Gospel to Alexandria (in Egypt) and founded the Church there. To whatever extent that particular tradition may be rooted in the actual historical events, the Church has rightly understood that to be Christian is to be established upon the foundation of the Apostles and Evangelists of Christ our Lord. Someone brought the Gospel According to St. Mark to Egypt, and someone preached that Holy Gospel to the people there. In that respect, therefore, it is quite sure and certain that St. Mark was a founder of Alexandrian Christianity. And by the Word of Christ recorded by St. Mark, we too have received the Gospel of life and salvation.

Actually, there were many pastors and bishops in succession who preached the Holy Gospel in Alexandria, including the early church father, St. Athanasius, whom I lectured on today. That sainted, long-suffering bishop will be commemorated one week from today, the 2nd of May, on what I reckon to be the 1635th anniversary of his heavenly birthday. We were looking especially at his great treatise On the Incarnation, which ought to be required reading for every Christian at some point or another in life. Such a splendid preaching of Christ and Him Crucified is seldom found, and it is a fitting testimony to the presumed legacy of St. Mark. It is all the more remarkable for the fact that it betrays no hint of the Arian controversies that rocked the fourth century, nor breathes any sort of bellicose or polemical spirit; even its apologetic refutation of the Jews and the Pagans is offered in the spirit of calling all men to repentance and the knowledge of the truth. For Christ has sent the Gospel to be preached to all creation, and has promised that all who believe and are baptized into Him shall be saved. From St. Mark to St. Athanasius to us.

St. Mark's Gospel is distinguished by its fast pace and vigorous activity. Here we are given the Lion of Judah, who comes to tread the serpent and bitter death beneath His heel into the dust. In the past, I have referred to the work of this second evangelist as "the action figure Gospel," which appeals to the young men. It is Jesus in action that St. Mark preaches, the Lord of Life hard at it, always moving, always doing. His doing culminates in His voluntary suffering and death. That is done to Him, but He is no passive victim. He knows where He is headed and what He is about. He takes up His Cross willingly and lays down His life of His own accord. He says that explicitly in the record of St. John, but He does it no less explicitly in the record of St. Mark. The latter's Gospel is especially devoted to the Cross; it has been described as a Passion account with an introduction, and that is about right. No other Gospel more clearly depicts the fight of which Dr. Luther sings: "It was a strange and dreadful strife, when life and death contended. The victory remained with life; the reign of death was ended."

Another long-standing tradition concerning St. Mark understands him to be the rich young man who once inquired of Jesus how to inherit eternal life (St. Mark 10:17). I am quite inclined to accept that tradition, and along with it to delight in several other related references unique to St. Mark. It is well known that the rich young man, upon that first encounter, went away sorrowful, because he had many possessions and was reluctant to let go of them and follow Jesus. Yet, the Lord Jesus looked upon him in love (St. Mark 10:21), and what was impossible for that man (or any other) was not impossible for the One who alone is good, who is true God and perfect Man. Though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor; He liquidated everything, even His very body and life, that He might bequeath the inheritance of His Kingdom to us.

For St. Mark the Gospel is the Cross and Passion of the Christ, and so too for those who would be His disciples. To live with Him in His Kingdom is to share His Cross and follow Him. It is to be baptized with His Baptism: into His death, in order to share His Life. It is to drink the Cup that He drinks; though for Him it is the Cup of God's wrath and bitter woe, so that for us it is the Cup of Blessing and Salvation. He drinks it down to the dregs, in order to fill it to the brim and overflowing with His Blood of the New Testament, which He pours out for us and for the many for the forgiveness of sins. So too is He stripped naked on the Cross, that we may be clothed with His robes of righteousness.

That's what He did for St. Mark. For there is that marvelous little passage in his Gospel, which the children find so captivating and even amusing, concerning the young man in the Garden of Gethsemane, who slips out of his linen sheet and runs away naked at the onset of the Passion (St. Mark 14:51). If this is the same young man who had previously declined to give up his riches, he has followed Jesus to the point of giving up everything now! Yet, the Lord would not have His disciples found naked, but clothed with immortality (2 Corinthians 5:1-4). As He once clothed Adam and Eve with the skins of sacrifice, so does the once-for-all sacrifice of His own flesh and blood clothe all who are baptized into Him (Galatians 3:27). His garments are removed and distributed to us, so that His nakedness and shame should fully cover all of ours.

And surely He has done it! For the next time we are told of that "young man" in St. Mark's Holy Gospel, he is sitting in the tomb whence the crucified Jesus has risen, "wearing a white robe" (St. Mark 16:5). Yes, of course, we know from the other evangelists that it was an angel (one of two, actually), but St. Mark records the historical facts with theological intent, and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he thus catechizes us in the significance of Holy Baptism. The rich young man has been called to repentance, turned away from the idolatry of his many possessions to follow Christ Jesus to the Cross. He has been stripped naked of all his own prideful self-righteousness, in order to be crucified, dead and buried with his Lord. But, see now, he emerges from the tomb in the Resurrection of that same Lord, Jesus Christ, and he has been cleansed and clothed in the purity of that New Man.

Who has believed his report? To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? With man it is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God. He does it by His Gospel. And He has done it by the Gospel of that beloved young man, St. Mark, by whose poverty many have now been made rich. For his voice has gone out into all the earth — from Galilee to Alexandria, to South Bend, and even to Siberia — his words to the ends of the world. How beautiful, indeed, the feet of him who was sent with such tidings of good things.

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