The feast of Saint Mark is one of those occasions when the scripture readings prescribed for the Mass in the 1970 Lectionary are quite clearly superior to those prescribed in the older one. In place of the complicated reading from Ezekiel about the four figures, which will only makes sense to a congregation that already knows the traditional symbols for the four evangelists, the current lectionary offers 1 Peter 5:5-14 with Peter's concluding reference to Mark, my son. And, in place of Luke's sending of the 72, we more appropriately hear the conclusion of Mark's Gospel (Mark 16:15-20), Mark's account of the final words of the Risen Christ and its mission-oriented final verse: But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.
The one mistake the lectionary bureaucrats made was to include in today's reading Peter's famous warning about the devil as a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. Did they forget that Mark's symbol is a lion (albeit one with wings)? In any case, they inadvertently offered the preacher a convenient contrast between the two types of lions, with which to begin his homily (an opening i myself took advantage of this morning)!
In the 2nd century, Papias of Hierapolis identified Mark as Peter's "interpreter," who faithfully passed on Peter's account of the story of Jesus. That identification stuck, and the Gospel of Mark - thought to have been written in Rome around the time of Peter's martyrdom - has long been seen as in some sense Peter's story too. Of course, there is also another traditional identification of Mark with Barnabas' cousin John Mark, who appears in Acts. And, of course, Mark has also been identified with the young man who in the Garden who ran away naked after Jesus' arrest!
Interesting as all that may be, the important thing is that at some point (probably in Rome, sometime in the 60s) someone we know as Mark wrote the earliest written account we have of the story of Jesus - and that in the very opening verse he titled it Evangelion ("Good News," Gospel). A very interesting title indeed, given that he was writing at a time when the small Christian community in Rome was experiencing persecution by the State!
Evangelists' feast days are especially nice because they afford an opportunity to consider each Gospel on its own terms. There are, of course, many distinctively interesting things about Mark's Gospel. Certainly one of them is the distinct sense of danger that accompanies the good news Jesus brings, the idea that becoming a disciple, while a welcome liberation from the demonic powers that oppress humanity, is also very much a challenge. Jesus himself exemplifies that in the novel notion that he will be a Messiah who must suffer and die. Likewise, for the disciple the choice to say "Yes" to Jesus must inherently entail a "No" to other options. Mark's gospel was written at the epicenter of 1st-century Rome's attempt to derail the Church's preaching of the coming of God's kingdom. But the challenge of discipleship was not confined to Mark's time and place. the many martyrs' feasts that fill the calendar attest to the ubiquity of persecution throughout the Church's history. Yesterday's commemoration of the centennial of the Armenian genocide and the many martyrs of the 20th century, as well as recent events in the Middle East and elsewhere, all remind us that Christians continue to be tempting targets. The challenge that becoming a disciple entails, which Mark's Gospel expresses so effectively, remains a vivid reality to this day.