Lent begins on February 14 with Ash Wednesday, coinciding with a day, Valentine’s Day, that has little in common with Lent and its customary discipline of fasting. But, the emphasis we place on love during Valentine’s day ought to remind us that Lent leads us through a journey following the example of true love—Jesus, who sacrificed his all for the redemption of the world.
If you’re wondering what to say ‘no’ in order to say ‘yes’ to something better during Lent, I suggest saying ‘no’ to daily time spent on unnecessary stuff and ‘yes’ to time spent in prayerful reflection with Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. I don’t mean giving up time for a ‘one-minute-devotional,’ but saying ‘yes’ to a minimum of twenty minutes per day. It always takes time, intentionally-set-aside time, to build meaningful relationships, not just with friends and loved ones, but also with Jesus.
I invite you to join me in a Lenten journey through parts of Mark’s Gospel. Readings with my comments will be posted in this space most of the days of Lent through to Easter Sunday (April 1). I’ve chosen to keep these devotions focused on the Gospel of Mark, rather than follow the Revised Common Lectionary lessons, because, a) Mark is the assigned Gospel for this year (2018); b) Mark’s message is relevant and timely for our present day with all its political turmoil and divisiveness; and, c) Mark hasn’t always been given the respect and attention it deserves and thus we miss Mark’s unique contribution to our understanding of following Jesus his way, not ours.
Before Lent begins and to help you get the most out of these Mark daily readings, I encourage you to read my introduction to journeying with Mark’s Jesus and, also read through the entire Gospel of Mark in one sitting if you can (it takes about an hour). This will give you a big picture view of Mark and context for the slower read through Mark. My prayer is that you will experience meaningful and life-changing encounters with the Living Lord Jesus and enter into news ways of experiencing life in Jesus.
INTRODUCTION to JOURNEYING with MARK’S JESUS
Surprisingly, Mark’s Gospel has had few devoted readers, by which I mean those who will read it again and again because they love his account of Jesus. Until recently, Mark was read less frequently in the church than the other three Gospels and attracted fewer major commentaries through the centuries. This means, as Rowan Williams suggests, Mark “can seem like something of a Cinderella Gospel” (Meeting God in Mark. 2014, p. 3). And yet, it’s impact remains exceptional on those who prayerfully read and ponder Mark.
I too read Mark less frequently until I discovered its amazing depth, subtle richness and ability to pull me into new experiences with Jesus. I then began reading it often and it soon became my favorite Gospel, even though it has meant giving up some comforting (and even idolatrous) views of Jesus and what it means to be his disciple. Each time I read Mark I’m surprised by something new; I can never presume I’ve got it all. Mark’s rich depth and brilliant story telling keeps me returning, again and again.
In this introduction I’ll explain why Mark is read less frequently, suggest tips for reading Mark responsibly and explain what I mean by devotional reading.
Reasons for neglecting Mark
Reasons for neglecting Mark are understandable. First, almost all of Mark (about 91%) is repeated, often verbatim in Matthew and some again in Luke. It may seem redundant to read Mark when you can get it all in Matthew and Luke. Second, Mark raises more questions than answers. As Ched Meyers warns, “The Jesus of Mark provides very few answers” (Binding the Strong Man. 2015, p. 12). Not only that, it asks questions of us that we can only escape by domesticating (conforming to our present lifestyle) or ignoring them. Most of us, if we’re honest, will admit we’d rather get answers than do the hard work of grappling with disturbing questions that confront our nice opinions and ideologies; that challenge rather than comfort. And, let’s be honest, challenging insights are less popular than comforting inspirational soundbites. But, as Richard Rohr writes in his book, Things Hidden, Scripture as Spirituality, of the Bible as a whole, “if you commit to really struggling with the text, it’s always much more exciting, but could also challenge your way of seeing the Bible [think Mark] and yourself” (Rohr. 2008, p. 14).
Third, Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels, leading some to presume it must be missing too much to make it worth reading. Don’t be fooled by Mark’s brevity. It doesn’t mean it’s poverty stricken in spiritual depth and unfolding narrative. Its stories are always longer and more detailed than the same accounts in Matthew and Luke. It’s shorter because there are few of Jesus’ lengthy discourses (think sermons) that are included in the other Gospels. In fact, there are only two (chapters 4 and 13). Mark focuses on what Jesus did rather than on what Jesus said. This means that Mark gives little to help readers readily discern good meanings and interpretations of what Jesus did, hence we have more questions than answers. We’re expected to do the hard work of careful study and prayerful reflection to discern meaning. It’s also the shortest because Mark is very economical with words, using them sparingly and purposefully. Every word counts. When we read Mark, we dare not skim over material to speed up the reading. It’s imperative, not optional, to read and respect every word Mark chose to use.
A fourth reason for sidelining Mark is that reading it often feels rather like the blind man Jesus healed in two stages, a story only Mark tells (Mark 8:22-26), and one we’ll prayerfully reflect on during Lent in these devotions. After the first stage Jesus asked the blind man whether he could see anything. He replied, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” It took a second touch from Jesus before the man’s sight was fully restored and “he saw everything clearly.” Reading Mark is often like this. Meanings are fuzzy and elusive, ‘trees that look like people walking.’ Only those who stay with Mark, waiting for Jesus’ second or third or more touch experience their ‘aha’ moments of deeper insight. Mark isn’t an easy read, at least not when we take it seriously.
A caveat; having said that’s it’s imperative not to ‘skim’ read Mark or skip over bits, Lent isn’t sufficient time for a comprehensive reading. We will be skipping over passages, so be forewarned. We’ll concentrate on the second half of Mark which is devoted to Jesus’ passions.
Tips for reading Mark
Since Mark is the Gospel most ignored by Christians, even today, we need some help in understanding how best to read and interpret this brief yet packed Gospel.
First, Mark is a narrative and must be read as such. Pay attention to the various elements of story, especially its characters. Some will be named, others not. Some will be enemies of Jesus, some disciples who turn out to be betrayers, deserters and deniers, some male and some female. As with any story, let the characters draw you in and help you name your own response to and opinion of Jesus. Reflect too on who or what they most represent in our society today.
Second, as in any narrative, details are important, not to be ignored. Mark, as I mentioned, is economical with words and every single one counts and was chosen for a reason. Mark doesn’t waste words; he never waffles, uses meaningless adjectives, or goes off track. Every detail included, and detail not included, matters. Therefore, we’re under an obligation to be attentive to everyone, wondering what Mark intended his readership to understand.
Third, Mark was written in a time and culture very different to our own. Those of us who grew up and now live in a first world country and are white, belong to the class of the privileged and wealthy (even if we think we’re poor, we’re really not). We read Mark from the center, that is from a position of power, influence and even imperialism. Mark wrote to a people who lived on the periphery. They were exploited, poor, oppressed, easily abused and deceived by both the religious (their Jewish leaders) and the political powerful (imperial Rome). They read Mark in a way that’s hard for us, who live at the powerful center, to understand. We need to keep wondering what it would be like to read and interpret Mark as one who lacks power and influence because they’re poor and oppressed. That is, imagine what it was like for Mark’s original readers, many of whom experienced poverty, oppression and the brutality of the imperialistic Roman Empire. To read Mark rightly, it’s important for us Westerners, especially white ones, to acknowledge our handicap as a powerful and privileged people and then commit to being more attentive to God’s voice and not the voice of our imperial heritage and culture, learning from those on the periphery in our world today. This means reading Mark as if we were ‘a beginner,’ reading like a young child curious about everything written in this Gospel. Read it as if for the very first time.
Fourth, Mark consistently states that Jesus was in journey-mode. Jesus is either coming from somewhere or going somewhere; leaving one town and headed to another. Mark periodically uses the phrase ‘on the way,’ sometimes referring to Jesus and sometimes to another. Pay attention as you read and make note of this emphasis on journeying. It is rich in symbolism, hinting at the spiritual journey we’re all travelling. We too are always ‘on the way’ to full redemption, healing and wholeness. Mark is our travel guide on this journey.
Meaning of devotional reading
I’m calling these daily readings in Mark, devotions, but I need to explain what I mean by that. Devotional reading can sometimes be brief (as in ‘one-minute’ devotions) and superficial, avoiding the difficult parts of the Bible and the hard work of thoughtful study and reflection. This will not be the case in these devotions. Instead, you’ll be challenged to think deeply and seriously with your mind and heart together, discerning what questions God is asking you to pursue further each day; what call to obedience; what opinions and beliefs about Jesus and his Way need to be given up; what challenge to repent and change. It’s up to you to discern and then respond to Jesus. Those who can’t or who refuse to respond will discover that Jesus patiently waits in silence until they do. This kind of reading takes time, more than one minute!
By ‘devotional’ I also do not mean that this will necessarily be ‘inspirational,’ at least not in the sense of receiving comfortable ‘soundbites’ you can pin up on the bathroom mirror to help you feel good about yourself as you read them over and over (when you’re not looking at yourself, that is). Instead, prepare to be disturbed as you’re challenged to reflect on and evaluate all of life—your spiritual life and your social life; your religious views and your political ones; your relationships with God, the world and yourself. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself walking away with a frown more often than a smile; with a question more often than an answer; with dis-ease rather than satisfaction. Thomas Merton warned, “It is the very nature of the Bible to affront, perplex and astonish the human mind.” Therefore, he cautioned, be prepared for a range of reactions, both positive (feel good) and negative (feel outraged) (Opening the Bible. 1970, p. 11). This is certainly true of Mark’s Gospel.
Finally, these devotions aren’t for the faint-hearted. It takes courage to read, really read Mark’s challenging account of Jesus and meet him in ways that may be new and different, that force us to change our minds and hearts. The challenge is always to let go the old in order to take on the new; to know what we see rather than see only what we already know. To help you do that, I will include some explanatory commentary and background. In other words, our journey through Mark is designed to exercise the mind (think more) and the heart (love more).
FORMAT and ORGANIZATION of these devotions
If you read all sixteen chapters of Mark, you may have noticed that the first half of Mark (up to 8:26) moves very rapidly, covering multiple locations (almost all in Galilee), over an extended but unknown period of time, but probably three years. Mark rapid-fires one story after another about what Jesus did. The Jesus we meet in this half is active and on the go. By the time we reach the second half of Mark, the writer slows down. The journey ends in one location, Jerusalem, and over a short period of time—days and finally hours in the final week of Jesus’ life. The Jesus in this half is mostly passive, with others do things to him. The story, in other words, moves from fast pace in the beginning to slow motion at the end; from an active Jesus to a passive one; from years to days and then hours.
Our reflections will focus on the slow-motion ending as we take in the final days and hours of Jesus’ life and wonder whether we’re truly following Mark’s Jesus who calls us to be like him. Mark has organized Jesus’ final days and hours around six different locations, all in Jerusalem. Rowan Williams, in his brief but outstanding introduction to Mark’s Gospel in Meeting God in Mark, suggests that these places could have been a version of the Stations of the Cross for the early Christians. After reading a selection of lessons from the fast-pace first half, the six places will act as our map for the remainder of journey in Mark. We’ll spend time in each place, prayerfully wondering about Jesus’ passion in order to make responsible decisions about how to live now.
If you get behind during Lent, rather than skipping a reading, keep with the schedule through Mark, even if that takes you beyond Easter, so that you experience the full richness of Mark’s Gospel. Prayerfully reading through Mark will take you into new experiences that will help you see God and God’s world, yourself and your relationships with a new set of eyes. It will be life changing because you will be confronted with your opinions about Jesus that may not conform to Mark’s teaching. The purpose of the journey is to better understand Jesus so that we all responsibly join his ‘revolutionary’ ways, being Christian to the end.
Because Mark is subtle and dense, don’t be surprised (or annoyed) if you discover in these Lenten devotions you’re reading a single verse or the same passage for a second day in a row. Some passages are critical and there is so much in them, I’ve chosen to spend more than one day with it. It doesn’t happen often, and maybe there are other passages you would like to stay with for another day that I didn’t. I encourage you to do so and take your time going through Mark.
I invite you, to journey through Lent with Mark as your guide. Don’t expect an easy or even a pleasant ride. Do expect a challenging but worthwhile one. Don’t expect to remain the same. Do expect to be transformed as you discover more and more about what it truly means to be Christian.
One last word, I’d really appreciate your comments and thoughts on Mark as you read with me. Please contact me and let me know what you’re thinking and learning about Jesus from Mark. You’ll see things I’ve missed that can help me continue learning from this amazing Gospel.
Merton, Thomas. Opening the Bible. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1970.
Meyers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991 and 2015.
Rohr, Richard. Things hidden: Scripture as spirituality. Cincinnati, OH: T. Anthony Messenger Press, 2008.
Williams, Rowan. Meeting God in Mark. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know Press, 2014.