MARK’s Gospel opens in stark simplicity. It continues in that same style right to the end — or ends, depending on what view you take of the longer version (Mark 16.9 on). No poetry like Luke. No kingly origin like Matthew. Certainly no grand philosophical prologue like John.
I was about 20 when I first formulated a truth that still frustrates me to this day. You can never read a book for the first time twice. Underneath the silliness of that statement is something serious: we can never undertake that first reading with a full appreciation of the experience that we are about to undergo. By the time we’ve acquired that appreciation, we cannot go back and have the first-time revelation again. I don’t remember when I first read Mark’s Gospel, but I am aware of a gradual, growing appreciation of its qualities, helped by the whole year’s-worth to which the three-year lectionary treats us.
When I review a book for the Church Times, it comes with a request to make sure that readers are not left in the dark over what the book is actually about. Mark clearly had no such guidelines. He plunges straight in as if we surely know what a Gospel is: “The beginning of the good news [gospel, evangelion] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” For us, “Gospel” means a book of the Bible. Back then, I’m fairly sure that Mark thought that it meant the act of telling good news. His words were written to people who were already making the gospel their own. He wanted to make sure that they stayed that way.
In the Early Church, as men (mostly) fought over what was genuine good news and what was not, there was a real chance that the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the Old Testament) would be chucked out, on the grounds that Jesus had superseded the old covenant. Paul’s delicate line between supersession and inclusion of “God’s ancient people, the Jews, the first to hear his word” was boiled down into a simplistic rejection.
The destruction of the Temple in AD 70 was seen as proof that God, like a cuckolded husband (Hosea 1.1;3.1), had traded in his old, unfaithful, people and found himself another. This new people, moreover, were not defined by race or language, or by a common history, or a special building. Instead, they were defined by an allegiance to a person: someone whom they identified as the only-begotten Son of God.
These readings help us to see why it would have been a fatal error if Christianity had jettisoned the Old Testament. True, God in the Hebrew Bible can be terrifying, angry, jealous, vengeful. He is also a mother bird with nestlings, and a kindly shepherd: there is always an element of our finding the God we go looking for, according to our taste or preconceptions. We can see God only with the blurred vision of faulty humanity. God is not inconsistent; rather, our vision and understanding change and grow.
Remembering the injunction to “put on the gospel armour, each piece put on with prayer”, when I was first a priest, I used a form of the voice from Isaiah. As I put on my microphone, I prayed: “Through this channel of your truth, may I be a voice crying ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’” I’m still trying to be a voice crying “Prepare!” Preparing the way of the Lord is John’s cry, but it is our job, now.
What John does ought to astound us. Would any modern leader with numerous enthusiastic followers — disciples, even — see another leader emerge and think it was time to make way for someone greater? That is not mere modesty on John’s part; it is sheer, beautiful honesty. He has the integrity to know that he is the Forerunner (as some Christian traditions call him); his function is to show people the way to the truth who is life, and then to recede: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25.23).
We want to know what next: what happens after the baptism of water and Spirit? But it is not the Forerunner’s concern. For that, we turn to 1 Peter, to find out “what sort of persons we ought to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness”. Conversion is a moment; its consequences play out over a lifetime.
The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.