25 April 2009

Saint Mark the Evangelist

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.

Today (25 April) we remember and celebrate the life of Saint Mark the Evangelist (Μάρκος).

According to later Egyptian traditions, the Gospel writer was born in Pentapolis in North Africa.

Other traditions say Saint Mark was one of the servants who poured out the water at the Wedding Feast in Cana (John 2: 1-11), one of the seventy sent out by Christ (Luke 10: 1), the man who carried water to the house where the Last Supper took place (Mark 14: 13), the young man who ran away naked when Christ was arrested (Mark 14: 51-52), the one who hosted the disciples in his house after the death of Jesus, and the owner of the house where the Risen Jesus Christ appeared (John 20).

Later he was at the heart of a disagreement between the Apostle Paul and Barnabas in Antioch, and so he went with his cousin Barnabas to Cyprus (Acts 15: 5-13). Yet in later life he was sent by Paul to Colossae (Colossians 4: 10, 14) and worked with him in Rome (Philemon 24; II Timothy 4:11). Tradition says he then returned to his native Pentapolis, and from there made his way to Alexandria.

In Alexandria, the people strongly resented his efforts to turn them away from the worship of their traditional Egyptian gods. In the year AD 68, they tied him to horses and dragged him through the streets until he was dead.

Today, Saint Mark is revered as the founder of the See of Alexandria, the seat of both the Coptic Pope and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria.

Saint Mark’s successors have included many of the great fathers of the church, including Saint Athanasios. 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 persecution, while the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria is the fastest growing missionary Church in Africa.

In the year 828, Saint Mark’s body 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 to be 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 Saint Mark’s in Venice 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, tradition says that over a generation later, in 1094, the saint himself revealed the location of his body by sticking his arm out through a pillar. The new-found body was then placed in a new sarcophagus in the basilica.

Nevertheless, 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 Saint Mark was not an apostle, one of the 12, he is an important figure in the 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 Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria should inspire and give hope to the whole Church.

Saint Mark bridges the gap between Eastern and Western Christianity too. Venetians wanted his body as much as Romans wanted to monopolise the Apostle Peter. Mark reminds us 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 both at those mosaics in Venice, and at the vacant place kept in waiting in Alexandria for the return of their founding, patron 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 Eucharist, 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 Institute. This reflection was shared at the early morning Eucharist on Saint Mark’s Day, 25 April 2009.

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