Various seasons in our liturgical calendar create space for us to grow as Christians. Lent, of course, is unique in its emphasis on sharing the experience of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, which is itself an imitation of Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the desert. This liturgical year we are reading Mark, so it’s worth focusing on what we can learn from this breathtaking Gospel.
Staying true to Lent, it would be good to meditate on Jesus’ experience in the desert (Mark 1:12-13), but since we get hardly any details from Mark’s account (cf. Matt 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13) we will look more broadly to the whole Gospel. The image of Jesus in Mark forms a collective picture of Jesus the “suffering Son of God.” This will orient our focus.
Mark touches on our theme of suffering early in his Gospel with the story of the healing of the paralytic (2:1-12). While Jesus has already healed people and exorcised demons without hesitation, something different occurs in this quintessential encounter with the healing Jesus. The paralytic has been brought to Jesus to be physically healed, and Jesus gives the paralytic something totally other! For Jesus, spiritual healing is at the center. It is not physical mobility, but spiritual death and resurrection that matters.
In the very next incident, Jesus is mingling with “tax collectors and sinners” (vs. 15). We see Jesus criticized by “scribes who were Pharisees” (vs. 16) for sharing table fellowship with such detestable persons. Jesus is even negatively assessed for healing the man with the withered hand because he does it on the Sabbath (3:1-6). In each instance, Jesus prioritizes the dignity and needs of the persons he is ministering to over and against the religious objections of his adversarial interlocutors. As Stephen Bevans, S.V.D., aptly describes, “it was especially Jesus’ practice of not being scandalized by anything or anyone that was most scandalous to the religious leaders of his day” (“What We Have Seen and Heard,” 79).
The episodes between Mark 2:1-3:6 give the sense that Jesus is a bit of a rabble-rouser!
God, in Jesus, would not be bound by the religious constructs of his time and instead reveals a path that engenders authentic human flourishing centered in the spiritual life. Jesus flips everything on its head, even the sacred understanding of Sabbath. It is no wonder that by the time we get to Mark 3:6 we already see plans for Jesus’ death being hatched.
Jesus’ three predictions of his passion inextricably tie his identity to suffering and relate it to the cross (8:31-33, 9:30-32, 10:32-34). While the cross is the central moment of suffering, it is not the exclusive occasion. Rather, the cross is the culmination of people misunderstanding Jesus throughout his ministry which is itself a suffering.
A survey of Jesus’ interactions finds: his family’s accusation that “he is out of his mind” (3:21), religious leaders’ claim that he is possessed by a demon (3:22), Peter rebukes him (8:32), Judas betrays him (14:45), and he is abandoned by all of the disciples (14:50). Even the seminal proclamation by Peter that Jesus is the Messiah (8:29) is only a partial understanding of Jesus, which Jesus qualifies (8:31-33). The post-resurrection scene doesn’t get much better, as Mark concludes his Gospel: “they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8).
Nearly 2,000 years of hindsight can dull our senses, but we should really try to be awed, even frustrated, by Mark’s Gospel. For Mark, the staggering challenge for those who follow Jesus is that they will share in his suffering (8:34). This Gospel hardly seems like “Good News.” But there’s something more to Mark’s sophisticated theology than simply saying people will suffer. Mark’s message is that our faith can behold the face of Christ in the midst of our sufferings. We are consoled that Jesus has already traversed this path, and accompanies us along our pilgrim way.
(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke, 27, is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a student in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame. His column offers reflections on his coursework, engaging with the richness of the Catholic tradition and its relevance to the world today.)