Today, April 25, is the feast day of St. Mark, one of the four writers of the New Testament gospels. Did you know he was not one of the 12 original disciples, and that he founded the Church of Alexandria, Egypt? How well do you know this holy man, also known as the Evangelist?
Tradition holds that Mark was younger than Jesus, perhaps by about 15 years. He was not one of the original 12 disciples but it’s very possible that he heard Jesus preach.
St. Mark came from a holy family
It’s possible that Mark’s mother, Mary of Jerusalem, mentioned in Acts 12:12, is responsible for Mark coming to know of Our Lord. Mary was a follower of Jesus, and her house was used as a meeting place for the early Christians. Some accounts even offer that her house was adjacent to the Garden of Gethsemane, that the upper room of Mary’s house is where the Last Supper occurred, and that it was Mark who fled the scene when Jesus was arrested, scared, in nothing but a linen cloth.
Mark was also the cousin of St. Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). St. Barnabas was closely linked to St. Paul, with whom he traveled, spreading the gospel. Barnabas is also credited with connecting Paul to the already existing Christian community, which included Mark. However, although the exact account is unclear, at some point during the trio’s travels, Mark left the other two, evidently due to homesickness.
According to Franciscan Media, “When Paul wanted to revisit the places they had evangelized, Barnabas wanted to take along his cousin John Mark, author of the Gospel, but Paul insisted that since Mark had deserted them once, he was not fit to take along now. The disagreement that followed was so sharp that Barnabas and Paul separated: Barnabas taking Mark to Cyprus, Paul taking Silas to Syria. Later the three of them were reconciled – Paul, Barnabas and Mark.”
Mark also had a non-biological familial connection with St. Peter, who referred to Mark as his “son” (1 Peter 5:13). Mark and Peter traveled together, and by some accounts, Mark acted as a translator for Peter. The Book of Mark relies heavily on Peter’s teaching.
What is St. Mark known for?
Most Christians may think of Mark in reference to his gospel, the second book of the New Testament. What many people may not know is that his book, despite appearing after the Gospel of Matthew, was written first. In images of Mark, he is sometimes seen with his book of the gospel, or in the act of writing, which is why he is known as St. Mark the Evangelist.
In these same images, he is often depicted with a winged lion, which has two backstories. The first is that the lion is a reference to his well-known portrayal of St. John the Baptist, who cried out in the wilderness like a lion. There is also a connection to the imagery of Revelations 4:7, which describes all four evangelists: Matthew is shown as a human, Mark as a winged lion, Luke as a bull and John as an eagle.
Despite the apparent (temporary) break with St. Paul, Mark figures prominently in the Acts of the Apostles. He went on to establish the first Church of Alexandria, Egypt and became the Bishop of Alexandria.
Besides being the patron saint of Cyprus, Mark is also associated with Venice, Italy, where his remains are held. Tradition holds that as he traveled Europe, Mark stopped in Venice, where he heard an angel say, “May Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. Here your body will rest.” Although he was martyred in Alexandria, his remains can be visited at the Basilica of St. Mark in St. Mark’s Square, Venice. He is also known as the patron of notaries and the City of Venice.
What we can we learn from St. Mark
While researching St. Mark, a few things stood out to me. For one, I never realized he was not one of the original apostles. Like St. Luke, he found his calling after Jesus was crucified, by associating with those who knew Him personally. Not only that, he seems to have found his calling belatedly, or else in fits and starts, if indeed we are to believe he both fled the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane and was temporarily banished by St. Paul.
I believe this makes him lovable in a similar way that St. Peter is lovable: because he is human. Too often, we hold ourselves to impossibly high standards on the road to holiness and sainthood. We assume the path toward God is straight and continually upward, but this is not necessarily so. The path to sainthood, as we see from saints throughout the ages, has twists and turns. We may advance, but we can also fall.
And yet, there must have been something special about Mark, since he was chosen by the Holy Spirit and moved to write a gospel account of the life of Jesus. It did not matter that he was not a disciple from day one. It also did not matter that he showed a human hesitancy. God used him for good, anyway.
A Witness to the Faith
Mark shows us that holiness takes time, maturity, and the help of spiritual mentors. He is a true witness to the faith, and whether we are a cradle Catholic, a convert, or a revert, Mark shows us that God can shape us for His purposes when we answer His call.
Practically speaking, Mark also stands out as someone who used the gifts God gave him, specifically his talent for writing. He is an example of one who did what we are all sent to do: share the good news of Jesus with others.
Mark was also a leader, serving as the Bishop as Alexandria. Being a Bishop in any time and place in Christian history must be a challenge, and serving as the first Bishop of a brand new Christian church probably had even more unique problems. For those who serve in a leadership position, especially in a public capacity, Mark is someone to pray to for guidance.
Mark serves as an example of someone who answered God’s call. No matter his early doubts, Mark submitted to God’s plan for his life to the point of death. One of many of the early Christian martyrs, Mark followed God’s voice to his final resting place in Alexandria.
St. Mark’s witness should make us examine our own inner lives, especially on his feast day. How are we answering God’s call, and how are we using our gifts to share the message of Our Lord? What holy people do we surround ourselves with, to help us grow?
Novena to St. Mark:
O glorious St. Mark, through the grace of God our Father, you became a great Evangelist, preaching the Good News of Christ. Obtain for me I pray you, lively faith, firm hope and burning love; patience in adversity, humility in prosperity, recollection in prayer, purity of heart, a right intention in all my works, diligence in fulfilling the duties of my state of life, constancy in my resolutions, resignation to the will of God and perseverance in the grace of God even unto death, and, by your intercession and your glorious merits I entrust to you this special favor I now ask (mention your request). I ask this through Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen. (Say one Our Father.)