Friday, January 10, 2014

The Adventurous Story of St. Mark: Christendom’s First Pope, Most Widely Traveled Apostle and Literary Inventor by Chris White

Bellini's "St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria"

 She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.
                                                                                                                                            --1 Peter 5:13
 He was truly the first Pope.  He wasn’t St. Peter (although he was related to Peter’s wife) and although he did spend a few years in Rome, that was not his Holy See.  According to the ancient Coptic Synaxiron (an ancient history of Christian martyrs), John Mark, author of the Gospel that bears his name, was the first apostle, martyr, and papa (pope) of Africa.  The term “pope” begins being used in Rome and Africa around the same time, however the African version is never corrupted by temporal power and has always meant something akin to the spiritual father of the Christian family and as the patriarch, one who has the responsibility to nurture and level of respect to correct.  The church Mark founded was in Alexandria Egypt and his diocese extended from all of Egypt through Libya and Tunisia.  His influence was immense but I am getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning.

 Aristobolus and Mary had a son named John Mark.  They were a prosperous and devout Jewish family who lived in the land of Cyrenaica (known in the New Testament as Cyrene or modern-day Libya).  Cyrenaica was a popular Jewish enclave with an ideal growing climate which made farming prosperous but also a popular trading center for merchants.  Mark’s family regularly traveled to Jerusalem for the Holy festivals, but eventually moved there because of troubles in their homeland.  Mark’s father Aristobolus had a cousin who was the wife of Simon Peter, a prosperous fisherman from Galilee.  We know that Mary and John Mark were early adherents to Christianity and possibly Mary was among the wealthy women who supported Jesus from their means (Lk. 8:1-3).  John Mark’s family owned a large home in Jerusalem which had an upper room.  This home, whose site was preserved even by ancient Christians even after the destruction of Jerusalem, is believed to be the place that hosted Jesus and the disciples for the Last Supper, and where the earliest church gathered to pray and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  No doubt the young John Mark met Jesus and the other apostles and many of the first Christians.  Barnabas of Cyprus was Mark’s uncle (his mother’s brother) and was also highly regarded in the early Christian movement.
 In Acts 12:12 we read of Peter being thrown into prison for preaching the gospel and while waiting for his execution is miraculously delivered from his chains by an angel.  When he is delivered from the Jerusalem prison he goes straight to Mark’s home to let the church know he is safe, but the scriptures say for safety he left the city and went for another place.  Author Thomas Oden suggests that Peter fled to Cairo Egypt which was a safe haven for Christians and Jews in the day, and who better to help him find his way than John Mark who would know the route well and would have been able to speak the local language.
 The book of Acts also places John Mark with Barnabas and Paul doing mission work. This was probably not his first attempt at it as two ancient authorities attest that John Mark was among the 70 disciples sent out among Israel to preach the gospel (Lk. 10).  His membership on the team breaks Paul and Barnabas apart as Paul was frustrated with Mark’s reticence and Barnabas took the side of his relative (Acts 15).  This is by no means a permanent breach as Paul mentions Mark several times in his letters putting him on assignment with the young churches in Asia and of course calling him with Timothy to Rome as he endures his final imprisonment (Col. 4:10, 2 Tim.4:11).
 But how was it that John Mark and Paul became so close during the latter’s Roman imprisonment? One ancient authority gives us a hint on this.  Clement of Rome was an early bishop late in the first century.  He writes: “Mark, Peter’s follower while Peter was preaching publicly the Gospel at Rome in the presence of Caesar’s equestrians (junior senators) and was putting forward many testimonies concerning Christ, being requested by them that they might be able to commit to memory the things that were being spoken, wrote from the things that were spoken by Peter the gospel that is called “according to Mark”.  Thus Mark could easily be with Paul because he had already been in Rome for some time helping Peter.
 It is interesting to note that the first verse of the Gospel of Mark reads “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God..”.  The longtime consensus view is that Mark’s gospel is the first written account of the Christ event and served as an exemplar for the later writings of Matthew, Luke, and John.  This represented a sea change for the meaning of the word “gospel”.  Prior to Mark, the gospel was a preached explanation of Messiah’s coming and redemption.  After Mark, the word came to mean an orderly presentation of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ with the intention of engendering faith and hope in the reader.  The gospels are not works of history (although they contain historic events and reference) but are their own unique genre of literature.  They are eyewitness memoirs with a design to convince both Jew and Gentile that Jesus of Nazareth was no mere man, but God in human flesh.
 St. Peter and his wife were both killed along with many Christian in Rome during the Neronian persecution around 64-67 AD.  It is within this same window of time that St. Paul also sealed his testimony with his martyrdom there as well.  Not long after this, Mark and many other’s flee Rome for their own safety as the Lord taught us to do (Mt. 10:23).  Eusebius and Sawirus, both ancient Christian historians, report that Mark was moved by the spirit of God to begin his work in Egypt.  With a lifetime of preaching experience and a city filled with Jews and Greeks, Alexandria was a natural fit for Mark.  Not far from where he grew up in Cyrenaica, Mark knew the culture, the language, and the people and soon one of the most important Christian communities in the ancient world was birthed through his preaching.
 It was also in Alexandria that Mark sealed his apostolic testimony with martyrdom.  Attacked and taken hostage by pagan followers of the Egyptian god Serapis, Mark’s death was by torture and humiliation.  He was stripped and with ropes tied to his feet drug through the streets of Alexandria by a horse.  This torture did not kill him (although it severely injured him) and so he was thrown into a prison where he was taken by the Lord before he could be tortured anymore.  The pagan’s wanted to burn his body in front of an idol to the god Serapis, but when they tried, a miraculous rain storm burst upon the scene and extinguished the fire.  The church was able to retrieve his body untouched by fire and bury it in a corner of their building where they could remember Mark on the day of his martyrdom every year which is traditionally May 8th.  This however is not the end of Mark’s travels.
 There is a tradition among the people of Venice that long before their famous city was built that St. Mark passed through the area on one of his many missionary travels.  When he laid eyes on the bare lagoons he heard the voice of God tell him (in perfect Latin of course) that “someday this will be your final resting place.” Whether that really happened or not, two resourceful Venetian merchants named Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello said it did to the two monks who were the custodians of St. Mark’s church in Alexandria.  It was the year 823 AD and Alexandria Egypt was now under control of the Muslims.  The beautiful church there was under threat because local authorities wanted to tear it down and use some of its columns to build a mosque elsewhere. 

 Knowing this, Malamocco and Torcello, convinced the monks they could best protect the remains of their beloved saint by giving them the relics (his bones) for safekeeping in Venice.  Since merchant boats were all inspected by customs agents before leaving Alexandria, the two men hid Marks bones in a barrel beneath cured pork and cabbage.  Knowing that Muslims consider pork to be unclean, their natural aversion went into full play when they came to the barrel containing St. Mark and soon they were out to sea.
 The remains were stored in the Doge’s palace (a Doge is the elected ruler of Venice) for several years until the beautiful Basilica San Marco was ready for its patron saint.  And so the Venetians named their land “The Republic of St. Mark” and chose the symbol of the Lion (one of the four creatures before the throne of God in Ezekiel) for Mark because of his great courage and strength as an apostle of Christ, a value they wanted to emulate in their community. 
  If we take the New Testament and testimony of the church fathers into account, John Mark’s missionary work encompassed Israel and Syria (the Middle East), Asia Minor (Asia) Cypress and Rome (Greek and Latin Europe) and Alexandria (Africa).  Perhaps it was destiny that John Mark, the young man from remote Cyrenaica, would become the patron saint of the sea-faring Venetians, like them, he too was a great traveler, taking the message of Jesus to the four corners of the compass.

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