Tag Archives: Nero

Reading Mark’s Gospel

Mark

As Ordinary Time begins after the Christmas season we’ll be reading  from the first 10 chapters of the Gospel of Mark at daily Mass till the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Even if you can’t get to daily Mass, read along with the daily lectionary. It’s a wonderful way to pray.

The medieval artist who painted the portrait above of  Mark, sees him as an old man, adjusting his spectacles and getting down to work, while a lion, a traditional symbol of the evangelist, gets ready to roar.

A roaring, fast-paced story– a good way to describe Mark’s gospel–. “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.’” Think of loud trumpets, drums and clanging symbols. We’re reading it in slow motion. It’s meant to be read fast, one story building on the other.

Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, first in Galilee and then in Jerusalem, by miracles and powerful signs. The “wild beasts” he faced in the desert (Mark 1,13) face him now in human form, but he boldly goes his way, with a lion’s courage.

The Acts of the Apostles says that Peter knew John Mark. After his escape from jail ” he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who is called Mark, where there were many people gathered in prayer.” (Acts 12,10)
Mark accompanied Barnabas and Paul on a missionary journey (Acts 12:25; 13:3; 15:36–39) and later sources say he was Peter’s interpreter.

From all those sources Mark must have assembled his gospel. He heard the stories about Jesus told by the Christian community at his mother’s house, He listened to Paul and Peter. From all of them, he wrote his gospel, the first to be written, around the year 70.

Many commentators say Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome for the Christians there who suffered during the first great persecution of the church by Nero after a fire consumed the city in 64 AD. Now they faced the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.

They were asking the same question the disciples of Jesus were asking. “Who are you?” “You are the Messiah,” Peter answers, but when Jesus announces he must go up to Jerusalem and be rejected and killed and raised up, Peter will have none of it. In response, Jesus calls him “Satan,” he’s thinking as man thinks and not as God does.

Mark’s Gospel concludes with the story of the Passion of Jesus. Jesus  dies and rises again  and all who follow him do the same. But Peter finds it hard to understand; all the disciples–us too– find it hard to understand. Mark’s gospel repeats again and again–we don’t understand.

Some say Mark’s gospel is “A passion narrative with an extended introduction.” In the next weeks we are reading the introduction, from chapters 1-10.

His first disciples didn’t understand the mystery of suffering already present in these chapters, Mark’s gospel says. The Kingdom of God comes anyway, in fact, it’s at hand. We pray to understand it.

Follow him.

The First Martyrs of Rome: June 30

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.

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 was at his seaside villa in Anzio and delayed returning to the city. Not a good move for a politician, even an emperor. Angered by his absence,  people wondered if 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 it went on or how many were killed: the Roman historians do not say. Possibly  60,000 Jewish merchants and slaves lived in Rome then; some were followers of Jesus and had broken away from the Jewish community even before Peter and Paul arrived in the city.(cf. The Letter to the Romans)

Following usual procedure, the Roman  authorities seized some 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)

How did the Roman Christians react to this absurd, unjust tragedy? They had to ask why God permitted this and did not stop it. Fellow  believers were among those who turned them in.

The Gospel of Mark, written shortly after this tragedy in Rome, was likely written to answer these questions, scholars say. 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 gives an unsparing account of Peter’s denial of Jesus in his Passion with no excuse for his failure. Jesus was betrayed and abandoned by his own followers.

Finally, the Roman Christians afterwards would surely wonder whether to stay in this city, an evil city like Babylon Should they go to a safer, better place? The Christians remained in the city. Was the “Quo Vadis?” story a story prompted by questions like these ?

The martyrs of Rome strengthen us to stand where we are and do God’s will, inspired by the Passion of Christ.

A video about the persecution is at the beginning of today’s 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 early Roman martyrs put to death here?

The Feast of St. Mark

Mark
May 25th is the Feast of St. Mark, author of one of the gospels. We can forget real people wrote the gospels, but the medieval portrait above shows the evangelist real enough as he adjusts his spectacles and pours over a book, surely his gospel. A lion looks up at him, the powerful voice of God.

He’s an old man, his eyes are going,  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. If he’s the author of the gospel, as it’s said,  he’s in his 70s at least.

He may have written his account in Rome, where he came with Peter, who calls Mark in his 1st Letter “my son.”  In 64 AD, the Christians of the city experienced a vicious persecution at the hands of the Emperor Nero. Peter and Paul died in that persecution. For years afterwards, Christian survivors were still asking themselves, no doubt, why it happened.

They say Mark wrote his gospel in answer to that dreadful experience. He would have heard Peter’s witness to Jesus many times; he knows his story.

Mark was not just a stenographer repeating Peter’s eyewitness account; he’s adapted the apostle’s story, adding material and insights of his own. For a long time Mark’s gospel was neglected, but scholars today admire it for its simplicity and masterful story telling. It’s the first gospel written and Matthew and Luke derive much of their material from it.

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). A great guide to this gospel and its rich message.

It offers a unique wisdom. It does not flinch before the mystery of suffering. We can’t understand it. There’s a darkness about this gospel that makes it applicable to times like ours. We’re disciples of Jesus.We must follow him, no matter what.

Father,
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.

Stations of the Cross

 

 

 

 

 

See also Stations of the Cross by young people at: http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/2018/documents/ns_lit_doc_20180330_via-crucis-meditazioni_en.html

Reading the Gospel of Mark

MarkThe Gospel of Mark is the first of the four gospels, written sometime between the year 65 to 70 AD. It’s read at Mass on weekdays from the end of the Christmas season until  Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, from chapter 1, verse 14 to chapter 10.

The readings begin with the announcement that “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

In each weekday reading Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, first in Galilee and then in Jerusalem, by miracles and powerful signs. He also faces growing opposition that eventually brings him to death.

From its very beginning, Mark’s Gospel offers intimations of the tragic mystery of the Passion of Jesus. Coming from the Jordan River where he is baptized by John, Jesus is led “at once” by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. “ He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” (Mark 1,13) In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus constantly faces the forces of evil and death.

Almost half of Mark’s 16 chapters describe the final period of Jesus life, when he went up to Jerusalem and suffered, died and rose again. As chapter 8 ends, Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. “You are the Messiah,” Peter answers, but Jesus announces he must go up to Jerusalem and be rejected and killed and raised up. Peter will have nothing to do with it. In response, Jesus calls him “Satan” and tells him he’s thinking as man thinks and not as God does.

In God’s thinking, Jesus, his Son, must die and rise again. All who follow him must do the same. Peter’s not alone in not understanding God’s thinking; all the disciples, including us, are slow to understand. Our lack of understanding is emphasized in Mark’s gospel, which some have called “A passion narrative with an extended introduction,”

Many commentators say that Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome for the Christians of that city who suffered in the first great persecution of the church by Nero after a fire consumed the city in 64 AD.

I lived in Rome for a few years in the Monastery of Saints John and Paul on the Celian Hill. The monastery was built over the Temple of Claudius; its gardens were once part of Nero’s gardens. From its heights you could see the Circus Maximus a short distance away where the great fire of 64 AD started and the extensive area that burned in the fire, up to Tiber River. Probably over a million people were affected by it.

The Roman historian Tacitus says that Nero blamed the Christians for the fire and had many of them arrested and put to death in his gardens and at the Vatican circus across the city.

I was living in the gardens where some of those early Christians were put to death, I believe. On the other side of the Colosseum, a short distance away, was the Roman prefecture and prison were many of them would likely have been held and sentenced. The Church of St. Peter in Chains stands there today.

I narrated a video about that church and the early persecution which may help you understand the church Mark wrote for. The persecution must have had a devastating affect on the Christians of Rome at the time, innocent people completely taken by surprise by this brutal injustice. They didn’t understand it at all. Neither did his first disciples understand, Mark’s gospel says.

Evil Doesn’t Have Its Way

Beheading JohnToday we read a long narrative from Mark’s Gospel (Chapter 6) describing the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod Antipas. It’s been called a “Passion Account before the Passion of Jesus.”

Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, had his capitol in Tiberias a short distance from Capernaum where much of Jesus’ ministry took place. He certainly knew what Jesus was doing and what people were saying about him. Some said he was Elijah, or a prophet. But what caught Herod’s attention especially was talk that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead.

Herod had arrested John and imprisoned him, probably in his fortress at Macherius near the Dead Sea. Then, influenced by his wife Herodias, who resented John’s criticism of their marriage– which violated Jewish law– Herod had John put to death.

The story told in great detail in Mark’s Gospel is an example of evil, oppressive power at its worst. Herodias’ daughter Salome dances at one of Herod’s bloated banquets and elicits his promise to do anything she asks for. “What shall I ask?” Salome asks her mother. “The head of John the Baptist,” is her answer.

Later in Mark’s gospel, Jesus identifies John the Baptist with Elijah. “I tell you that Elijah has come and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” (Mark 9, 13) Like Jesus, John suffers and is treated with contempt.

The story of John’s beheading by Herod prepares Mark’s readers for the story of the Passion of Jesus. Both stories were meant to help Mark’s first audience, Roman Christians, face the sudden, absurd persecution inflicted on them by the Emperor Nero in the mid 60s. Like Herod, Nero seemed supremely powerful. They could not see it yet, but evil would not have its way. The Son of Man would rise from the dead and be glorified. So would they.

That’s the lesson we should take from this story too. Evil doesn’t have its way.

June 30th

June 30th, following the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we celebrate the early Christian martyrs put to death by Nero after the disastrous fire that burned down much of the city July 19, 64 AD. If I were in Rome today I would go to the church of Saint Peter in Chains or to the gardens of Saints John and Paul on the Celian Hiill to remember them.

The two apostles were put to death around this time and many (we don’t know how many) followed them.

There’s a blog and a video on the church of St. Peter in Chains here and here.And a video on the Stations of the Cross in the gardens of Saints John and Paul here. There’s also a video on the Quo Vadis story here.

The persecution and martyrdom  in 64 throws light on the creation of the Gospel of Mark, which many think was written in Rome afterwards.

One thing I think this feast and the Gospel of Mark suggests: the Church of Rome did not flee from the uncertainty and persecution it faced then. I think the Quo Vadis story indicates that. It didn’t give up.

We pray today:

Father,

you sanctified the Church of Rome

with the blood of its first martyrs.

May we find strength from their courage

and rejoice in their triumph.

We ask this through our Lord, Jesus Christ, your Son.