Praying with Scripture has long been a part of
our tradition as Catholic Christians. But many people wonder
where to begin their prayerful reading of the Bible.
In this issue of Scripture from Scratch,
we will move with Jesus through the Gospel of Mark, looking
and listening with openness and faith. As you go through the
article, take time to read the suggested passages. Pray with
them and reflect on what they mean in your own life. In his
first sentence Mark introduces Jesus as "Messiah (Christ—s,
Greek for "the anointed one"), the Son of God." From the outset,
we know that this man Jesus is someone special, someone unique,
someone who has power in our lives.
As you travel with Jesus from Nazareth, you may
want to open before you a good map of first-century Israel.
Jesus' entire life was confined to an area smaller than Vermont.
Jesus leaves Nazareth and arrives in the southern
part of Israel near Jericho. At the Jordan River, John is preaching
repentance, preparing the way for the Messiah. We know what
John and the crowds do not: The Messiah is here.
When Jesus is baptized he experiences a mystical
moment in which the love of God is made clear to him. The Spirit
descends and the voice of God says, "You are my Son, I love
You and am pleased with you" (1:11).
Stay with Jesus, driven by the Spirit into the
desert, struggling with evil forces (1:9-13).
Walk back with him to Galilee, as he moves from
town to village, proclaiming the good news of God, calling his
first disciples, associating with sinners, driving evil spirits
out of people, healing the sick with a word or touch.
Rise early with him as he goes off to pray. Hear
him insist to those who search him out: "Let us preach in surrounding
villages. For this I have come" (1:38). He affirms an essential
connection between his prayer and his ministry (1:14-39).
Who Is This Jesus?
After Jesus calms a storm on the lake, his frightened
disciples raise the question: "Who is this man whom even the
wind and sea obey?" (4:42). That question and its answer are
at the heart of Mark's Gospel.
Jesus is certainly human, but continues to do
what only God can do. Read Mark 28. Notice how urgent
Jesus' message is and how active he is in his ministry, and
yet how often he takes time to pray. As a religious teacher
he speaks with his own authority. He forgives sins, controls
the powers of nature, multiplies food and raises the dead to
life. He challenges corrupt religious authority and condemns
their hypocritical behavior.
In Mark 9, Jesus is enveloped by the defining
experience of his human life, the acknowledgment that he is
the beloved Son of God. As at his baptism, so now on the mountain
of his transfiguration (9:2-8), he hears God say, "This is my
beloved son. Listen to him." Jesus' entire ministry in Mark
is sandwiched between his baptism and his transfiguration.
All that Jesus does is permeated by his Father's
reassuring love. Because of this, in Gethsemani, on the night
before he dies, he prays agonizingly, "Abba [Hebrew for Papa],
all is possible to you. Take this cup [of suffering] from me;
yet not what I want, but what you will" (14:32-36).
Steeped in Tradition
Much of the richness of the Gospels lies in their
echo of the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the Bible has formed
and transformed our own lives, so the Scriptures of Jesus' tradition
gave him a deep and prayerful sense of his life and ministry.
Jesus deliberately identifies himself with key
prophetic figures in Israel's religious writings. We need to
understand these connections if we are to come to know Jesus
Let's pause here to read carefully six passages
in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Moses. Read Deuteronomy 18:15-20.
Moses, Israel's greatest prophet, is the key figure during the
exodus of God's people from Egyptian oppression. Before Moses
dies, around 1200 B.C.E. (Before Common Era), God promises the
people another prophet like Moses.
Now look at Mark 1:22-27. Jesus proceeds to preach
and teach as no other prophet, not even Moses, has done: "He
taught them as one having authority and not as the scribesa
new teaching." He repeatedly reinterprets their religious legal
traditions (see, for example, Mark 2).
Mark writes, "[Jesus] went up a mountain and called
to himself those whom he wanted. Yes, he appointed twelve, whom
he named apostles, to be with him [presumably to soak
in his presence and teaching] before being sent to preach and...to
drive out demons" (3:13-15). This is surely reminiscent of Moses'
going up Mt. Sinai to be with the God of the covenant.
That soaking-in process is an image of contemplative
prayer. Without consciously sharing Jesus' presence in prayer,
we will never be effective in our ministry. Notice, too, that
doing the will of God is Jesus' primary concern (3:34).
David. Now read 2 Samuel 7:8-16
and Psalm 89. Over 200 years after Moses, God promises to King
David an everlasting dynasty.
In Mark's Gospel especially, Jesus is reluctant
to acknowledge his identity as the Jewish Messiah. Some refer
to this as the "Messianic Secret." Why this reluctance? Because
the people have a much different understanding and expectation
of the Messiah than the destiny Jesus knows is his. Read 8:29-33;
Even Peter and the other disciples fail to understand
Jesus' true identity as Messiah until after his death and resurrection
Isaiah's Suffering Servant. Read
Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22. During the Babylonian exile, some 400
years after the time of David, a nameless balladeer sings of
an innocent servant of God burdened with the people's sins.
By his vicarious suffering and dying, they are forgiven, healed,
regeneratedeven as he continues to live on in some mysterious
The Son of Man. Read Daniel 7:9-14.
The Book of Daniel was written during the Jewish revolt against
a brutal Syrian-Greek tyrant who tried to force pagan religion
and culture on the Hebrew people.
This book describes a vision of someone who looks
human ("like a son of man"), "coming on the clouds of heaven"
(that is, of apparently heavenly origin) whom God makes ruler
of all the world forever.
Jesus identifies himself with both the world-ruling
Son of Man in Daniel and the suffering servant of Isaiah. Read
Mark 8:31-32; 9:31; 10:33-35.
We can see now that Mark's portrait of Jesus is
of a man who is conscious of fulfilling these four prophetic
figures. "This is the time of fulfillment," Jesus proclaims.
"The reign of God is at hand" (Mark 1:15).
Even to the Cross
After moving into Judea and teaching crowds near
the Jordan, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem where opposition to him
comes together into a deadly trap (Mark 1113). He confines
his teaching to his remaining disciples, and answers trap questions
from enemies who circle him.
Mark indeed believes that Jesus fulfills the four
prophetic figures and, even more, that he is God's Son. Yet,
according to Mark, this same Jesus is misunderstood, disbelieved,
rejected, hounded, stalked and persecuted. He is finally accused,
unjustly condemned, publicly brutalized and executed for affirming
the truth of his identity.
Before he dies, Jesus is opposed by every faction
of his people Saducees, Pharisees, Herodians, Romans and
even his own townsfolk and relatives. He dies abandoned by all,
including his male disciples and associates.
In spite of his apparent failure, however, Jesus
triumphs through it all. He doesn't capitulate, he doesn't lose
trust in his Father. He doesn't fail to be and do what the Father
asks of him, but instead he proclaims the good news of God's
love in truth, uncompromisingly, to the end.
We find hope and consolation in the fact that
Jesus never gives up on us, either. He never ceases to love
us. His suffering and apparent failure was redemptive for us
all. Paradoxically Jesus succeeds by failing, redeems by suffering,
lives by dying, triumphs by submitting.
It seems like upside-down theology, but this redemptive
suffering is at the heart of Christian spirituality Jesus was
raised from the dead because of his obedience and love for his
Father and for us, and he lives on as our glorified Lord and
The first to receive and believe and proclaim
this good news were his women disciples (and women have continued
to be his best and most numerous disciples ever since). They
were told, "He has been raised.... Go, tell his disciples and
Peter: 'He goes before you to Galilee where you will see him
as he told you'" (Mark 16:6-7). A later editor of Mark adds,
"They preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them"
Mark does not feature Mary the mother of Jesus,
or mention his women disciples, except in a few words after
his death (15:40, 41, 47; 16:1-8). He focuses on the rejection
and apparent failure of Jesus. Faithful women disciples did
not fit into this emphasis. No woman in any of the Gospels ever
abandoned or disappointed Jesus, but every man associated with
him bailed out.
Mark's silence regarding women disciples until
after Jesus' death, far from ignoring or belittling these women,
acknowledges their fidelity and courage. To have featured them
earlier, as Luke does, would mitigate his emphasis on the disciples'
rejection and abandonment of Jesus.
Mark wrote first for a suffering and persecuted
community. No surprise, then, that his Jesus pointedly reminds
us, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny themselves (put
others first, as Jesus did), take up their crosses (accept what
we cannot avoid) and follow me."
Read Mark 8:34-37. We save our lives as Jesus
did, by losing them through generous self-giving. Selfish grabbers
lose it all in the end.
The Journey Continues
Sacred Scripture is a source and help for a unique
kind of contemplative prayer. In the Gospels we meet Jesus.
In and through him we meet God the Father and the Holy Spirit.
When we meet the real Jesus alive in us now, everything recorded
of him in the Gospels and everything he ever experienced is
part of that presence.
All the saving mysteries of Jesus' mortal life
continue to be life-giving for us now. To contemplate
the Gospel narratives and words of Jesus means simply to listen
to them with an open, hungry heart and a long, loving look.
The Holy Spirit does the rest. As Paul promises, "the Spirit
comes to the aid of our weakness; we do not know how to pray
as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes [for us]..." (Romans
In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus gives his followers
this invitation: "Come to me, and I will renew you" (Matthew
11:28-30). Now that we've taken a contemplative journey through
the Gospel of Mark, you might want to try one of the other Gospels
on your own.