Friday, 25 April 2008

Saint Mark’s Day: a reflection

Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice: part of the glory and splendour of the Serene Republic (Photograph © Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Acts 15: 35-41; Ephesians 4: 7-16; Psalm: 119: 9-16; Mark 13: 5-13.

May I speak to you in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

We are still in the Easter season, and Saint Mark’s Gospel offers us one of the most challenging readings on the Resurrection. Yet, consistently, students at the Church of Ireland Theological College have greatly enjoyed and been enriched by the way Dr Wilfrid Harrington has worked through Saint Mark’s Gospel.

So, perhaps it is important that we are commemorating Saint Mark this morning.

Saint Mark the Evangelist (Greek, Μάρκος) is traditionally said to have been a companion of the Apostle Peter. He accompanied the Apostle Paul and Saint Barnabas on Saint Paul’s first journey. After a sharp dispute, Barnabas separated from Paul, taking Mark to Cyprus (Acts 15: 35-41). It was, perhaps, this separation that led eventually to the writing of the Gospel according to Saint Mark.

Later Paul calls upon the services of Mark, the kinsman of Barnabas, and Mark is named as Paul’s fellow worker. Among the four evangelists, Saint Mark’s symbol is the lion.

Saint Mark is also revered as the founder of the See of Alexandria, the seat of both the Coptic Pope and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria. His successors have included many of the great fathers of the church, including Saint Athansius. I suppose, in some ways, we could call him the founder of Christianity in Africa. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria has survived through generations of schism and persecution, while the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria is said to be the fastest growing missionary Church in Africa.

In the year 828, what was believed to be the body of Saint Mark was stolen from the Patriarchal Church in Alexandria by two Venetian merchants and was taken in a pork barrel to Venice, where Saint Mark’s Basilica was to house the relics and Saint Mark was proclaimed the patron saint of the Serene Republic.

Although Coptic Christians say they managed to hold on to the head of Saint Mark, which is kept in Saint Mark’s Patriarchal Cathedral in Alexandria, a mosaic on the façade of the basilica shows the sailors covering the body with layers of pork, knowing Muslims would not touch pork and so their theft would go undetected.

When Saint Mark’s Basilica was being rebuilt in Venice in 1063, they could not find the stolen body. However, according to tradition, over a generation later, in 1094, the saint himself revealed the location of his body by sticking his arm out through a pillar. The newfound body was then placed in a new sarcophagus in the basilica. In 1968, Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria sent an official delegation to Rome to receive a relic of Saint Mark from Pope Paul VI.

But the missing bodies of saints and where they are kept are far less important than the lessons we can learn from the lives of saints such as Mark.

Although Mark was not an apostle, one of the 12, he is an important figure in terms of passing on the apostolic faith.

There are more Christians today in Egypt than there are in Ireland. Egypt’s 7 million Christians are a witness to how Christian faith can survive flourish through all the difficulties of history. The survival of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the missionary successes of the Church of Alexandria should inspire and give hope to the whole Church.

Mark bridges the gap between Eastern and Western Christianity too. Venetians wanted his body as much as Romans wanted to monopolise the Apostle Peter. But Mark is an important figure in terms of understanding that our Christian faith must not to be limited to its European cultural expressions. African expressions of Christianity are not exotic or different, they are authentic and apostolic.

I have been to both Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice and to Saint Mark’s Patriarchal Cathedral in Alexandria. I have gazed in wonder at both those mosaics in Venice, and at the empty place kept vacant and waiting in Alexandria for the return of their saint. But as I looked at them I also recalled that empty tomb that is described at the end of Saint Mark’s Gospel. The living body is more important than the dead body.

This morning in our Holy Communion, as we remember Saint Mark, may we be strengthened in our faith in the Risen Christ, and rejoice in the Body of Christ, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This reflection was shared at the College Eucharist on Saint Mark’s Day, 25 April 2008.