Today we celebrate the great life and witness of St. Mark the Evangelist. According to Eusebius, who wrote a history of the Church in the early 4th century, Mark knew St. Peter, evidence of which comes from Holy Scripture, and spent time with him traveling and in Rome when he wrote down Peter’s sermons and teachings as he composed his Gospel. After Peter’s martyrdom, Mark fled to Alexandria where he founded a parish and was the first Bishop of Alexandria. He is depicted in icons and church art as a winged lion, and you can see that on our icon of All Saints to the left of Jesus’ feet as one of the four Gospel authors.
It seems strange, then, that the Gospel given for us today in order to celebrate St. Mark, does not even come from his own Gospel, but from John’s! Nor is there any mention of Mark in the Epistle! So why is the lectionary set up this way, and what are the appointed readings trying to tell us? I hope to show that the readings represent Mark himself: first because as a Bishop he was an ambassador of Christ and a source of unity for the church and second as an author of a Gospel, he is a source of correct doctrine so that we may follow the life of Christ and not be carried away by false doctrines.
Let us turn to the epistle first. This passage comes in the middle of Ephesians 4, and jumps right in the middle of St. Paul’s longer discourse on the unity of the Church. The community in Ephesus is having a hard time getting along, and so Paul urges them to act in accordance to the reality in which they live. After he urges them to live in unity, he reminds them of the truth that the Body of Christ is a unity. [Eph 4:4-6 KJV] “[There is] one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who [is] above all, and through all, and in you all.” The Church is not an individualistic reality but a reality in which all the individuals are bound together in one body by one baptism, believing in one faith, and consecrated for one God.
But within this unity, there is a multiplicity of vocations. Here, Paul investigates the nature of a Body, by looking at Christ’s action. “Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.” Because Christ descended to earth as a man, and then ascended, he transformed human nature. Our translation makes it seem as if his ascension fills the whole universe as pouring water into a pan fills the whole pan, but that is not what the Greek is getting across here. The word for fills here, πληρόω, is the term usually translated as fulfill. Christ’s incarnation and ascension fulfills the mission of God to redeem His people–His grace now perfects human nature!
One way in which Christ continues to perfect humanity is by giving gifts. As St. Paul says: “Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.” The enemy has been defeated and Christ gave gifts to men so that they may participate in His unity, in His Body, or as St. Paul says: “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” So, for those ends, he gave gifts to the Body: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. This list developed into the threefold order of Bishops, Priests, and deacons. It still amazes me that the gifts are people! Men that God has chosen to help edify the Church, continue the ministry of reconciliation, and urge people towards holiness.
St. Mark, as I said before, was a bishop, one of these special gifts from God. And as a bishop, he was a gift from God to continue the unity of the Body of Christ. A feast day like this helps us remember the importance of St. Mark and also of all our bishops who are our source of unity. IT just so happens that St. Mark’s feast day falls right before Ascension because these weeks are all about Christ instituting the Apostles as His church. In the three weeks prior to the feast of the Ascension, the lectionary gives us three separate times when Christ tells His disciples that He will be leaving so that the Holy Spirit might come and fill the Apostles. Christ gives the Apostles the Holy Spirit so that they might continue his work in the Church, and St. Mark is our great reminder today of this fact.
But ST. Paul does not stop there–the purpose of the Church is for all to enter this same fulness and worship God. He continues: “[Eph 4:13 KJV] Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:” Later in the epistle he concludes: “But speaking the truth in love, [we] may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, [even] Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.”
Notice that the fullness is Christ’s fullness. It is a unity within Our Lord which is ever present and yet ever growing in time. So we are prompted by St. Paul to live in love which unites the whole body. This is our principle of moral action–that we act in love towards God and man not for our own sake but for the sake of the Body. Our union in that Body spurs us to increase and pass along this charity so that our lives look like the head of the Body, Christ Himself. As Jesus says in the Gospel: “As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.” Our union encourages us to follow the commandments.
And yet there is also the chance of walking away from this fulness, to be deceived and lost. St. Paul knows this danger, and one of the reasons of Christ’s gifts is to keep us from these dangers: “[Eph 4:14 KJV] That we [henceforth] be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, [and] cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” Deception in doctrine leads us away from the Body of Christ, and so we must take great care to never lose sight of Christ and his teachings. St. Mark provides us with one of the great ways to avoid these errors, his Gospel. Our icon shows the role of the Gospels in revealing Christ to us. The four Gospel writers in the icon are situated on four corners of the image of Christ. It is as if they hold the vision of Christ there in the middle, and this is true since the Gospels reveal to us the nature and person of Our Lord. On this feast day, let us give thanks for God’s great gift to us in St. Mark who gives us a vision Christ. If you have never read Mark’s whole Gospel in one sitting, I encourage you to do so. It will vividly present to you the exciting and dramatic life of Christ so that you may come to know Him more. We have not read any of his Gospel today, but I hope you see now how our readings today present the necessity of St. Mark–both as a bishop and therefore Christ’s appointed source of unity for the Body and as the author of Christ’s life that will keep us from erroneous doctrine and inspire us to continue to live in the Body of Christ in all charity.