Tag Archives: gospel of Mark

The First Martyrs of Rome

June 30th, the day after the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we remember the Christians  martyred with them in Nero’s persecution in the mid 60s, a persecution that shook the early  church of Rome.

It began with an early morning fire that broke out on July 19, 64 in a small shop by the Circus Maximus and spread rapidly to other parts of the city, raging nine days through Rome’s narrow street and alleyways where more than a million people lived in apartment blocks of flimsy wooden construction.

Only two areas escaped the fire; one of them, Trastevere, across the Tiber River, had a large Jewish population.

Nero, at his seaside villa in Anzio when the blaze began, delayed returning to the city. Not a good move for a politician, even an emperor. Angered by his absence,  people began believing that he  set the fire himself so he could rebuild the city on grand plans of his own.

To stop the rumors, Nero looked for someone to blame. He chose a group of renegade Jews called Christians, whose reputation was tarnished by incidents years earlier when the Emperor Claudius banished some of them from Rome after rioting occurred in the synagogues over Jesus Christ.

“Nero was the first to rage with Caesar’s sword against this sect,” the early-Christian writer Tertullian wrote. “To suppress the rumor,” the Roman historian Tacitus says, “Nero created scapegoats. He punished with every kind of cruelty the notoriously depraved group known as Christians.”

We don’t know their names,  how long the process went on or how many were killed: the Roman historians do not say. Possibly  60,000 Jewish merchants and slaves lived in the Rome then; some followed Jesus, even before Peter and Paul arrived in the city. Before the great fire these Christians had broken with the Jewish community.

Following usual procedure, the Roman  authorities seized some of them and forced them by torture to give the names of others. “First, Nero had some of the members of this sect arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers were condemned — not so much for arson, but for their hatred of the human race. Their deaths were made a farce.” (Tacitus)

The Christians were killed with exceptional cruelty in Nero’s gardens and in public places like the race course on Vatican Hill. “Mockery of every sort accompanied their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (Tacitus)

Nero went too far, even for Romans used to barbaric cruelty. “There arose in the people a sense of pity. For it was felt that they (the Christians) were being sacrificed for one man’s brutality rather than to the public interest.” (Tacitus)

You can imagine how those Roman Christians reacted as victims of this absurd, unjust tragedy. Did they ask where God was, why this happened, why didn’t God stop it?  What about their fellow  believers who  turned them in?

The Gospel of Mark, written shortly after this tragedy in Rome, was likely written to answer these questions.  Jesus, innocent and good, experienced death at the hands of wicked men, that gospel insists. He suffered a brutal, absurd death. Mark’s gospel gives  no answer to the question of suffering except to say that God saved his Son from death.

The Gospel of Mark also presents an unsparing account of Peter’s denial of Jesus in his Passion and offers no excusing words for his failure as a church’s leader. Was it calling the Roman church experiencing betrayals to forgive as God forgave his fallen apostle?

Finally, the Christians of Rome would surely ask: should they stay in this city, this Babylon, a city where they found so much evil? Should they go to a safer, better place?

In spite of it all, they stayed in the city to work for its good. Is the “Quo Vadis?” story an answer to that question?

May God strengthen us through the prayers of the martyrs of Rome to understand the evil we face in the light of the Passion of Jesus. Grant through them too, the patience to do God’s will where we are.

There’s a  video about the persecution at the beginning of this blog.

Here’s a video about Peter’s encounter with Jesus as he flees from the city during this same persecution: “Quo Vadis?”

Here are Stations of the Cross in  the gardens of Ss.Giovanni e Paolo in Rome, once the gardens of the Emperor Nero. Were some of the early Roman martyrs put to death here?

 Eternally Yours

    In this Wednesday’s Gospel (Mk 12: 18-27) a group of Sadducees (a powerful priestly party that denies the resurrection of the dead) tries to confound Jesus by getting Him to comment on a hypothetical situation that would make resurrection from the dead ridiculous. They cite a situation similar to the one in today’s first reading from the Book of Tobit, where Sara, the daughter of Raguel has had the misfortune of being widowed seven times. They ask Jesus, “ At the resurrection when they arise whose wife will she be? For all seven had been married to her. “ Jesus answers them :

    “ Are you not misled because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but they are like the angels in heaven. As for the dead being raised, have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God told him ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ He is not God of the dead but of the living. You are greatly misled.”

    Jesus neutralizes their petty traps handily. But, in this sacred Scripture passage our Lord also gives us some hints about the mystery of life after death. Our loving God will give us the gift of being “ Like the angels in heaven “. Jesus seems to say that God IS the God of the Patriarchs, and since God is the pure source of life, He can only be the God of the living. Therefore these Patriarchs, many years after their “deaths”, must still be alive with and in Him. He is also our God, and always will be. We also have the hope of always living with Him throughout eternity.

    On this Pentecost Sunday, at Mass in my Parish the last song about the Holy Spirit was accompanied by the music of Beethoven’s “Song of Joy” from his 9th Symphony. As soon as I heard the melody I thought of my father, who did so much to introduce me to the music of this, our favorite composer. The Spirit of God filled my eyes with tears as I felt my father so alive and present within my soul. My mother was there with him. Like on so many other sacred moments, I knew that they still lived in God’s arms, and were there waiting for me. On the day of that Mass, through the loving power of God, I was able to feel palpably the presence of the Communion of the Saints with all of us in that joyful church building.

    Yes, “ We believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. “

    Amen! Thank You Jesus, for Your mercy. Through Your Passion and Resurrection, You have given us the hope of living in your Love forever!   

Orlando Hernandez


Our new president is interested in numbers. How many people were at his inauguration; how many votes did he get? Numbers indicate power and popularity.

I think Jesus’ disciples were interested in numbers too. In Mark’s gospel, which we’re reading at Mass these days, Jesus begins his ministry in Capernaum before an enthusiastic crowd. At the end of his first day, the whole town gathers at the door of Peter’s house and word reaches out to other towns and places that a prophet has come. The numbers go up. (Mark 1, 21-34)

But then enthusiasm dies down as Jesus’ authority is questioned. His own hometown, Nazareth, takes a dim view of him; religious leaders from Jerusalem and the followers of Herod Antipas cast doubts about him. Gradually, Capernaum and the other towns that welcomed Jesus enthusiastically turn against him. The numbers go down.

His disciples must have wondered why. Why did people oppose him? Why are the numbers going down? It didn’t make sense.

In our reading from Mark’s gospel Jesus answers them. God‘s working in this world, the kingdom of God is coming, but human beings are mostly unaware of it.
“This is how it is with the Kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and would sleep and rise night and day
and the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come.” (Mark 4, 28-34)

A greater power is at work in the scattered seed; the one casting it to the ground knows little about the way it grows. The seed takes time, with its own law of growth; a great harvest will come, but it will come in mystery.

Meanwhile, we worry about numbers. Why are a growing number of Americans–almost 25%– giving up going to church or synagogue? Why are there so few vocations to our religious communities? So many of the good things in this world seem to be diminishing.

What can we do? Treasure the seed we have, scatter it as we can, look into the signs of the times. The Kingdom of God comes.

The Wisdom of Ordinary Time

The readings in today’s Mass point to the wisdom of ordinary time. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” Jesus says to his disciples who complain there are others “who do not follow us” driving out demons. (Mark 9,38-40) Wisdom is not just in our tradition; it’s there everywhere in ordinary time.

I like the hand in the picture above of Bernini’s famous window in St.Peter’s. Who’s hand is it, anyway? A believer’s hand. Yes, for sure. But also the hand of all who walk this earth searching for truth.

“Wisdom breathes life into her children” (Sirach 4,11 ) Like much of the wisdom literature in the bible (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, Psalms) the Book of Sirach, one of the readings at the beginning of ordinary time, draws much of its content from the culture of the middle east which influenced the Jews at home and in their exile in other lands.

As the gift of God breathed into ordinary time, the Holy Spirit “renews the face of the earth.” The Spirit’s wisdom is everywhere.

The Feast of St. Mark

Today’s the Feast of St. Mark. I like this medieval portrait of Mark, the author of the gospel, pouring over some writings. His gospel perhaps?  It reminds us that real people like Mark were behind the sacred books we read. The lion looking up at him is the powerful voice of God inspiring him.

He’s an old man, his eyes are going. But he has to be old if he’s a disciple of Peter, as tradition claims. Mark’s gospel appears shortly before or after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. Forty years before, around the year 32, Jesus died and rose again. So, if Mark is author of the gospel as tradition claims, he’s in his 70s.

He’s probably in Rome, where just a few years before, in 64 AD, the Christians of the city experienced a vicious persecution at the hands of the Emperor Nero. No doubt they’re still feeling its affects and asking themselves why it happened.

Mark, along with Peter and Paul, must have suffered in that persecution. Tradition claims he wrote his gospel in response to that dreadful experience. We might speculate that Mark came to Rome with Peter. In Peter’s 1st Letter he calls Mark, “my son.” Mark would have heard Peter’s witness to Jesus many times; he knows his story.

St.Irenaeus, an ancient commentator on the transmission of faith in the early church, writes “The church, which has spread everywhere, even to the ends of the earth, received the faith from the apostles and their disciples.” The apostles and their disciples–Mark’s one of them– gave us the gospels.

As Peter’s disciple, Mark’s not just a stenographer repeating Peter’s eyewitness account; he’s adapted the apostle’s story, adding material and insights of his own. Scholars today admire Mark’s gospel and advise reading it carefully. It’s the first gospel to be written, they say, Matthew and Luke derive much of their material from it. Though simply written, the author uses simple details masterfully to tell his story.

Though some scholars question the traditional attribution of the gospel to Mark and its origin in the Roman church, the traditional position still has strong backing. It offers a unique wisdom. We’re disciples of Jesus. How are we going to add our voice to his?

I like the wonderful commentary: The Gospel of Mark, in the Sacra Pagina series from Liturgical Press, by John Donohue,SJ and Daniel Harrington, SJ (Collegeville, Min. 2002). It’s a great guide to this gospel.

You gave St. Mark the privilege of proclaiming your gospel. May we profit by his wisdom and follow Christ more faithfully. Grant this, through Christ, your Son.

Friday, 3rd Week of Lent

Lent 1
Love God and love your neighbor, Jesus says in today’s gospel.(Mark 12, 28-34) We would expect to hear about love on a lenten Friday since every Friday of the year is associated with the Friday called Good. The lenten fridays especially prepare us for that great day of love.

The gospels dwell on what took place that day in great detail. On their part, historians, scholars, artists approach the mystery of Jesus’ passion and death in different ways. What political or religious factors were behind it? Who were the people involved? What was crucifixion like? The day is a fascinating conclusion to a fascinating life. But, above all, it’s a day about love.

Why did Jesus suffer such a death, we ask? As God’s Son, no one could take his life from him. The only answer we can give is that Jesus gave himself up to death and he accepted death on the Cross out of love for his Father and out of love for us. Love caused him to say in the Garden, “Your will be done.” Love called words of forgiveness from the cross:”Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The cross was not something Jesus endured; he embraced  it with his whole heart, his whole mind and all his strength. Before his cross, we stand before Love.

“When you experience dryness in your prayer, gently stir your spirit with loving acts then rest in God. Softly say to him, ‘How bruised your face, how swollen, how disfigured with spit. I see your bones laid bare. What suffering, what blows, what grief. Love is one great wound. Sweet are your wounds, sweet is your suffering. I want to keep you always close to my heart.” (Paul of the Cross:Letter 23)

Lord Jesus Christ,
the scribe in today’s gospel repeated the command to love
and you praised him for it.
May I keep before me the great commandment
to love God and my neighbor
and live it as you did.
Give me that grace. Amen.

Mission: St. Joseph, Keyport, NJ


I’m leading a 3 day mission at St. Joseph Parish in snowy Keyport, New Jersey, ending Ash Wednesday. The theme of the mission is: Following Jesus Christ. Last night, we remembered how Jesus called others to follow him into the world. Parishioners read from the call of the disciples from St. John’s gospel and I spoke about the way Jesus in Mark’s gospel led his disciples into the town of Capernaum, into its synagogue, the house of Peter and then on the road where they met a leper.

Today Jesus calls us to go with him into our world, into our towns and cities, our churches, our homes and along the road where we meet the poor, the lepers of today. He’s leading us there.

In the catechesis I suggested we look again at the simple ways we were taught to pray, like the Sign of the Cross and the Our Father. In prayer we come know Jesus Christ. For our closing rite we held lighted candles, symbols of our baptismal call. We listened to a wonderful testimony from a couple who returned to church recently; the choir provided inspirational music. Afterwards there were refreshments in the parish hall.

Praching (2)

Tonight we turn to the Passion story of Mark. In our catechesis I suggested reading the bible during Lent, because we can know Jesus Christ through the bible. In recent times our understanding of the bible has grown as archeologists, historians and other studies enlarge what we know of the world Jesus lived in and the early writings that tell of him. The New American Bible Revised Edition is a good choice to read because it contains the same translations read in the liturgy and its notes are up to date and well written.

Knowing more about the books of the bible can help us understand them better. For example, the Gospel of Mark, generally considered the earliest gospel, was probably written in Rome for Christians who had been shaken by a fierce, unexpected persecution under the Emperor Nero. The persecutions caused Roman Christians to question their faith in the light of this absurd injustice.

Mark’s gospel doesn’t answer their questions. Instead, it presents the innocent Jesus as he faces suffering and death holding on to a belief he is in his Father’s care. From death, he will rise again.

Tonight we read from the story of the Passion of Jesus in Mark and reflect on its meaning. We’ll also hear a testimony from one of our young parishioners here at St Joseph’s and be given a small cross as a reminder of Jesus’ words, “Take up your cross and follow me.”