We’re reading the Letter of James and the Gospel of Mark these weekdays at Mass, writings going back to the 60s, from Jerusalem and Rome respectively. Three important Christian leaders were put to death in that decade: James, Peter and Paul. We see their deaths now as the glorious death of martyrs; Christians then were probably more aware of losing three religious leaders they depended on for guidance.
The Letter of James and the Gospel of Mark (traditionally acknowledged as the spokesman for Peter) were voices for these disciples in the churches they left behind.
In the 60s a growing turmoil engulfed the church in Jerusalem, as Jewish Christians faced growing opposition in the city. The death of James, their leader, at the hands of Jerusalem’s Jewish leaders is evidence of this antagonism. Because of it, many Jewish Christians left Jerusalem and went into exile. The destruction of the city by the Romans in 70 AD canceled any plans they had for returning home.
In the 60s, the Christians of Rome experienced persecution of another kind. It was a sudden, unexpected persecution by the Emperor Nero that followed the fire that destroyed most of the city in 64 AD.It’s good to keep the background of these writings in mind when reading them. In today’s reading, Mark emphasizes a theme that runs through his gospel. “Do you still not understand?” Jesus asks his disciples. (Mark 8,21) What the disciples, led by Peter, don’t understand especially is the mystery of his passion and death.
Writing for the Christians of Rome, Mark wants them to see in the incomprehension of Jesus’ first disciples their own incomprehension before the vicious suffering inflicted on them at the hands of a powerful and unjust emperor.
They don’t understand. It’s a mystery slowly understood.
And they wont be the last to not understand the mystery of the cross. We’re seldom ready for it and slow to recognize all the forms it takes.