Sunday, April 24, 2016

Who was St Mark? And Why is he pictured as a lion?

April 25th, Feast of St Mark the Evangelist

In the Roman Martyrology for April 25th, we find: “At Alexandria, the [heavenly] birthday of Blessed Mark the Evangelist, he, for the faith of Christ, being stretched and bound with cords, was dragged over the rocks, and grievously tormented. Afterwards, being shut up in prison, he was first comforted by an angelic vision, and at last by the appearance of the Lord Himself, by whom he was called to the heavenly kingdom in the eighth year of Nero.”

In honor of this great saint and evangelist, we do well to consider certain details of his person. Who was he? Is he John Mark? Was he a priest? Had he ever met Jesus? Why is he presented under the figure of a lion?

Who was Saint Mark?

While there are some who maintain that St Mark the Evangelist was among the 72 disciples and had for a time lapsed from the true faith only to be re-converted and reconciled through St Peter some time after Pentecost, it is better to assert that St Mark had never known Christ during his earthly life but was converted to the faith by St Peter some time in the first years after Pentecost. This is the most natural read of Sacred Scripture, when St Peter testifies that St Mark is his spiritual son (“Mark, my son”, 1 Peter 5:13).

Some maintain that the young man who followed our Lord after his arrest in the Garden but who was then seized by the soldiers and abandoned his garment to flee away naked into the night (cf. Mark 14:51) is St Mark the Evangelist, but nothing in the text indicates this. Indeed, while it is clear that this young man must not have been one of the Apostles (who had already fled), there is no indication that he is the Author of the Gospel either. Rather, it is more probably that he was either some other disciple of the Lord who had only just come upon the scene, or with less probability, he may have been John Mark (who is supposed to have been the man who owned the house in which the Last Supper took place).

Indeed, another common confusion is to identify St Mark the Evangelist with John Mark who was a disciple of St Paul and traveled with St Paul and Barnabas in their missionary journeys through Greece. John Mark is referred to by St Paul in his Letter to Philemon as well as in Colossians 4 and 2 Timothy 4. However, that John Mark is not the same as Mark the Evangelist is clear from this point: St Mark the Evangelist was the close disciple of St Peter and was with St Peter in Rome at the same time that John Mark was with St Paul in Greece. Indeed, the ancient tradition connects St Mark the Evangelist with the cities of Aquileia in Italy and Alexandria in Egypt – John Mark, on the other hand, is not known to have preached the Gospel in these places.

Thus, following Father Cornelius a Lapide, it is perhaps best to assert that St Mark the Evangelist was an Hebrew and likely a priest of the tribe of Levi (as St Bede the Venerable teaches). He was converted to Christianity and baptized by St Peter some time after Pentecost, and accompanies the Prince of the Apostles even to Rome. Later, he was sent by St Peter to preach the Gospel in Egypt and was Bishop of the Church in Alexandria. Here he gave witness to Christ through martyrdom.

Why is St Mark pictured as a lion?

And as for the likeness of their faces: there was the face of a man, and the face of a lion on the right side of all the four: and the face of an ox, on the left side of all the four: and the face of an eagle over all the four. (Ezekiel 1:10)

The Church interprets the four living creatures as symbolic of the four Evangelists. Borrowing from Ezekiel and from the Book of Revelation, we see St Matthew pictured as a man, St Mark as a lion, St Luke as an ox, and St John as an eagle. Why is St Mark represented by the figure of a lion?

The images of the four Evangelists are taken in large part from the manner in which they begin their Gospels. As St Matthew begins with the human geneology of Jesus, he is pictured as a man. St John soars to the heights of the eagle with In the beginning was the Word,  and St Luke calls to mind the sacrificial offering of the ox beginning with the sacrifice which Zachariah offered in the Temple. Thus also St Mark, who opens with the mighty roar of St John the Baptist’s call to repentance, is pictured under the powerful image of the lion.

An additional meaning which could be signified by the lion relates to a tradition which considers St Mark as the founder of monastic life and of the desert fathers. Since St Mark is the father of the Church of Alexandria and since this Church produced the great movement of consecrated religious life as hermit, anchorite, monk, or nun, St Mark is rightly considered by St Jerome and John Cassian to be the founder of monasteries and hermitages. Now, lions are often connected with the desert fathers and other ancient monks -- whether we think of St Paul the Hermit and St Anthony of Egypt (whose graves were dug by lions), or of St Jerome (pictured with the lion he cured), or even St Blase (who as a hermit was surrounded by lions and other wild beasts). Therefore, the image of the lion calls to mind St Mark's connection with Alexandria and his role as the spiritual father of religious life in the Church.  

Additional notes to support our thesis above:

St Jerome (Catalogue of Ecclesiatical Writers: “Mark was a disciple and interpreter of St Peter. At the request of the brethren at Rome, he wrote a short Gospel, based upon what he had heard St Peter relate. This, when Peter had heard, he approved of, and sanctioned its being read in the Church […] Mark took his Gospel, which he had compiled, and went to Egypt. He first preached Christ at Alexandria, and founded a Church there, which possessed such great purity of doctrine and life that it influenced all followers of Christ by its example.”

Again, St Jermone (Introduction to the Commentary on Matthew): “Mark, the interpreter of the Apostle Peter, who indeed had not himself seen the Lord, the Saviour, but had heard his master’s preaching, related according to the truth of the things which were done, rather than the order in which they were done.”

Clement of Alexandria (tom. 6, in Biblioth. Patr. in Edit. Parisiensi.): “Mark, the follower of Peter, when Peter was preaching the Gospel publicly at Rome, in the presence of certain knights of Caesar’s household, and was advancing many testimonies about Christ, being requested by them, wrote from the things which were spoken by Peter a Gospel, which is called that according to Mark.”


Clinton R. said...

Thank you for this wonderful discourse on St. Mark. When seeking an understanding of Scripture, I too seek the exegesis of Fr. a Lapide. It is a great counter point to the modernist tendencies of today's Biblical scholars who often scoff at the teachings of the Church Fathers and of men such as Fr. a Lapide and Fr. George Haydock.

Anonymous said...

Such a wonderful way to get to know better someone who spent a good portion of their life to proclaiming God's Glory through His Son.


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