It’s called the “Markan Secret” – that’s M-A-R-K-A-N; meaning it pertains particularly to the gospel of Mark, and it’s this recurring motif of Jesus doing something miraculous or being identified as the Messiah by either supernatural means or human confession and then Jesus asking everyone to “keep it under their hat” – a healing or an exorcism; an event like the Transfiguration or what we read about in today’s gospel with Simon Peter’s famous confession. All those things point to who Jesus actually is: the Christ. That is the problem.
Why is it a problem? Why keep this a secret? Why not shout it out in the streets that it would appear that God has come at last to rescue his people? And here is the agent of that rescue, Jesus.
Well, as we well know, there was no such thing 2000 years ago as liberal democracy. There was no such principle as freedom of speech. There was no acceptance by the authorities of a “marketplace of ideas.” It’s a world we have difficulty imagining; a world simply about power. Any conversation that questions the legitimacy of those who have power is a threat. Those who raise awkward questions, point out hypocrisy, inconsistency, duplicity, corruption, these are enemies of the state, or the prince. And Jesus would have had in John the Baptist a recent example of the rivalry between godly prophet and worldly ruler; and it ends badly.
The prophet of God, and by that prophet’s existence, we have proclaimed the idea of God, and an assertion of the reality of God, these present to the world a profound political problem. To have posited the idea that there is someone, something to which we have a higher loyalty than to the state, to the king, to the duly elected representative government of a country is a problem for those who would govern us. It is a rival to their authority; a challenge to their power; a source of criticism that potentially subverts them; and so, the options for civil power are few. An emperor, or a republic, a democracy or an autocracy can either fight to suppress those who preach and teach about a God who is truth, love and justice itself; or they can co-opt the religion, insinuate themselves into the cult. They can’t ignore God.
We see both these things in history. The Romans went from persecution of the Church, to adoption of Christianity as the Imperial religion. Doing the latter, the powerful can then claim that someone is “king by the grace of God” or that the republic is “one nation under God” that in some way the system of governance has been given the divine “seal of approval”; and so, those who govern do so on behalf of God. That, nonetheless, constrains them – they can’t do whatever they want, but must always negotiate with the religious leadership: and we can see the friction between political and religious authorities in history. King Henry II of England in frustration with Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Catholic Church in England, cried out, “Who will relieve me of this troublesome priest?” And shortly thereafter, several of his knights took it upon themselves to afford him that relief, and they martyred Thomas Becket in his cathedral at evening vesper prayers. Henry VIII would drive the troublesome church underground and offer its counterfeit with him as the head of England’s Christian community.
When we look at the Gospel of Mark, we are looking at a gospel written for an underground Church, a Church in hiding, a Church on the run because the powers that be have found it troublesome.
It’s commonly assumed that Matthew gave us the first gospel, and that Mark’s is a rough contemporary version. However, it is notably shorter; it’s the shortest gospel. Indeed, you can read the whole thing in the space of a couple of hours; it quickly tells the story and that might be advantageous to the evangelist who needs to keep moving, to not stay too long in any one place.
The style of it is very simple, the language that of the common Greek-speaker, not the polished grammar and sophisticated vocabulary of the educated classes. That tells you it was written for a specific audience: people we might describe as “working class” or “everyday people” and in the group would be tradesmen, fishwives and slaves. People without a great deal of education, but with intelligence enough to understand the message of the gospel.
As I said, it’s short, and we know that it was distributed, not in scrolls, you know a great long parchment rolled onto a pair of large dowels, but rather it was in what was called a codex. A codex is essentially an early version of a book, the sheets were sewn together into pages, and a protective cover put on them. These were far more compact, easier to carry, easier to hide.
We have from tradition the story that Mark was a disciple of Peter’s. So, he may have followed Peter from Antioch, were the head apostle first established himself, and then to Rome where the great saint was martyred. What Mark did was take the stories that Peter most commonly shared in his preaching, supplemented that with what other stories about Jesus were current, and made of this his gospel. But he likely did this all from memory, and some time after Emperor Nero had Peter crucified upside down in a location not far from today’s St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Mark is a saint long associated with Egypt, and in particular Alexandria. It makes sense that in fleeing persecution, Mark went from the imperial capital to another great city, Alexandria. There were a lot of Greek speakers there, and Alexandria was a major intellectual and commercial centre connected to much of the known world, a place from where Mark could publish his gospel and disseminate it out to the rest of the world; and do so undetected in the midst of the enormous activity of the place.
This should tell us something as Christians: being a Christian, proclaiming the gospel, standing up for the truth, asserting the essential equal dignity of all persons as made in the image and likeness of God, the equal accountability of all persons before God, these are things that are potentially very dangerous, these actions can result in persecution, and they can get you killed.
Wherever there is censorship, speech codes, this is not a good environment for the Gospel. Funny enough, though, it is the Gospel that appears to be what overturns censorship, disrupts attempts to control what people say and think. It is subversive of those who are controlling.
That’s why Communist China is so anxious to co-opt the Church, to demand that it be the ones to appoint her bishops, and astoundingly, edit the scriptures (which they’re trying to do). And what they cannot control, they destroy. And so, we hear and read about the demolition of independent churches, the raiding of “underground masses” offered by Catholics who regard the state-appointed leadership as wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Incredibly, there are still places in this world where Bibles must be smuggled over the border, snuck past customs officers because it is either outright banned or its circulation highly regulated, places like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran, Algeria, Viet Nam, Burma, Malaysia. There are at least 52 countries where it is either difficult to get a Bible or outright illegal. What many of these places have in common is that you and I would never want to live there; but interestingly enough, many of these places enjoy a brisk tourist trade with the West.
The truth of the Gospel will always make its way out. Truth cannot be forever suppressed. It might take years, or centuries, but cannot be contained. We have in Mark’s gospel proof of this, evidence of it in the Bibles that sit on our shelves, hopefully read with some frequency.
We know that for all Jesus’ insistence, the secret can’t be kept. By the time of his Passion, Jesus is quite well known. You’ll remember that Herod Antipas wanted the condemned Jesus to perform a trick for him, a little miracle to entertain him and his guests. Jesus declined, and that disappointed the prince who likely had good reports from his spies that Jesus had pulled off some impressive stunts.
In our own modest suffering for the sake of the gospel we know we keep solidarity with those who’ve gone before, with Mark and the ancient Christians who heeded the words of Isaiah, that God had opened their ears to truth and so in defiance of the world they could equally proclaim: Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is God who helps me: who will declare me guilty?
When we each take up our crosses, we also take up the cross; and we proclaim not our individual truths, but the singular truth of the gospel. This will cost us our lives; and for many that will be the good thing of ending a current life of sin and despair, and resurrection to a joyful life lived in the promise of eternal life. For a few, though, it may mean a more painful sacrifice than us giving up on old and sinful ways, but of suffering in service to the Gospel at the hands of its enemies. And for those who do, like those who fearlessly preach the Gospel in places like mainland China, North Korea, and indeed, even here in Canada in the face of government hostility and institutional intolerance toward our insistence on the sanctity of life and freedom of conscience, we must continually pray. They save their eternal lives by sacrificing this life; they glory in the truth by thinking as God does, and not in the manner of the world.