Today is the feast day of Saint Mark the Evangelist. Though it is frequently put in the same category as Luke and Matthew (the first three gospels are known as the “synoptic gospels” because they can be “seen together”), readers will notice that there is something a little strange and enormously compelling about the gospel according to Mark. This strangeness is clearly evident in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, which is part of the gospel lesson appointed for the day:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. (Mark 1:9-12)
Most of us are much more familiar with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ encounter with John, which is characterized by an almost byzantine politesse. Jesus arrives on the banks of the Jordan, asking to be baptized. John obsequiously responds, “No no, I couldn’t possibly! You should be baptizing me!” Jesus tells John that it must happen this way to fulfill all righteousness, so John relents. As Jesus comes up out of the water, the clouds part and the skies open in a beatific vision as the Holy Spirit descends and a heavenly voice proclaims to the onlookers, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The account we get in Mark’s gospel, on the other hand, is gritty, impolite, in-your-face, and downright violent. There is none of the courtly posturing that we get in Matthew; Jesus simply shows up and gets baptized. As far as we’re aware, there’s not even any communication between John and Jesus. As Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are not opened, but violently torn apart; creation is invaded by the presence of God. The Holy Spirit descends, not to provide a pretty picture that includes every person of the Trinity, but to drive Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. The most striking and unsettling aspect of this account is its violence. In Mark’s gospel, God’s presence is made known in an almost destructive way.
Over the past week or so, many of us have been reeling from the devastation wrought by the bombings in Boston, the explosion in West, and the earthquake in China. It’s been one of those weeks where many of us have wondered what could possibly come next. And yet, even in the midst of this destruction and devastation, we have seen moments of compassion, heroism, and grace. We have witnessed strangers comforting each other on the streets, first responders risking their lives to rescue those in danger, and people opening their homes and businesses to those without a place to lay their heads. It is in images like these that we have borne witness to the presence of God even in the violence of the past week. It is in images like these that we have had an opportunity to discern the Holy Spirit moving through a broken and desperate world.
As Christians, this should not surprise us. Every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we break the bread that we believe has become the body of Christ. In those broken fragments of bread, we discern the presence of Holy Spirit, the promise that God loves this world even in its brokenness. Perhaps this is why the gospel of Mark is so compelling. Mark does not paint a rosy picture; he does not sugarcoat the world Jesus Christ came to save. Instead, he points our world with all its brokenness, violence, and degradation, and promises that even this world with all its faults is loved by God.