Wednesday, April 25, 2012

St. Mark the Evangelist - Easter 4B: Good Shepherd Sunday

John Mark, later known simply as Mark, was a Jew by birth. He was the son of that Mary who was proprietress of the Cenacle or "upper room" which served as the meeting place for the first Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12). He was still a youth at the time of the Savior's death. In his description of the young man who was present when Jesus was seized and who fled from the rabble leaving behind his "linen cloth," the second Evangelist might possibly have stamped the mark of his own identity.

During the years that followed, the rapidly maturing youth witnessed the growth of the infant Church in his mother's Upper Room and became acquainted with its traditions. This knowledge he put to excellent use when compiling his Gospel. Later, we find Mark acting as a companion to his cousin Barnabas and Saul on their return journey to Antioch and on their first missionary journey. But Mark was too immature for the hardships of this type of work and therefore left them at Perge in Pamphylia to return home.

As the two apostles were preparing for their second missionary journey, Barnabas wanted to take his cousin with him. Paul, however, objected. Thereupon the two cousins undertook a missionary journey to Cyprus. Time healed the strained relations between Paul and Mark, and during the former's first Roman captivity (61-63), Mark rendered Paul valuable service (Col. 4:10; Philem. 24), and the Apostle learned to appreciate him. When in chains the second time Paul requested Mark's presence (2 Tim. 4:11).

An intimate friendship existed between Mark and Peter; he played the role of Peter's companion, disciple, and interpreter. According to the common patristic opinion, Mark was present at Peter's preaching in Rome and wrote his Gospel under the influence of the prince of the apostles. This explains why incidents which involve Peter are described with telling detail (e.g., the great day at Capharnaum, 1:14f)). Little is known of Mark's later life. It is certain that he died a martyr's death as bishop of Alexandria in Egypt. His relics were transferred from Alexandria to Venice, where a worthy tomb was erected in St. Mark's Cathedral.

The Gospel of St. Mark, the shortest of the four, is, above all, a Roman Gospel. It originated in Rome and is addressed to Roman, or shall we say, to Western Christianity. Another high merit is its chronological presentation of the life of Christ. For we should be deeply interested in the historical sequence of the events in our blessed Savior's life.

Furthermore, Mark was a skilled painter of word pictures. With one stroke he frequently enhances a familiar scene, shedding upon it new light. His Gospel is the "Gospel of Peter," for he wrote it under the direction and with the aid of the prince of the apostles. "The Evangelist Mark is represented as a lion because he begins his Gospel in the wilderness, `The voice of one crying in the desert: Make ready the way of the Lord,' or because he presents the Lord as the unconquered King."  [Excerpted from Pius Parsch, The Church's Year of Grace]

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O God, who raised up Saint Mark, your Evangelist, and endowed him with the grace to preach the Gospel, grant, we pray, that we may so profit from his teaching as to follow faithfully in the footsteps of Christ. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
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Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year “B”) 

[Texts: Acts 4.7-12 [Psalm 118]; 1 John 3.1-2; John 10.11-18]

This Sunday is the Church's annual day to highlight the importance of prayer for vocations to the priesthood. As Catholics ponder Scriptures which tell of the rich sacramental life begun by Jesus, they offer prayers that God will abundantly bless them with priests to further His shepherding ministry in today's parishes.

The fourth Sunday of Easter – Good Shepherd Sunday – regularly features prayer for priestly vocations. The long address in which Jesus described Himself as the “beautiful shepherd” (John 10.1-21) includes a prior assertion “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep” (10.7).

Whoever would seek access to God's people as shepherd, then, needs authority from Jesus to do so. Priest-shepherds are called to make their own the selfless dispositions of Jesus, not those of “the hired hand” who runs away in time of danger “because a hired hand does not care for the sheep”.

Jesus' speech mentions shepherds, sheep, gatekeepers, hired hands, thieves and bandits, offering a glimpse into rural Palestinian life. The evangelist notes that, in his teaching, Jesus used a “figure of speech” (10.6). This is not the same as a parable – such as the “labourers in the vineyard” (Matthew 20.1-16) or the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10.30-37) -- imaginative stories that expand on a metaphor and end with a surprising twist, prompting listeners to reflect on their lives.

Instead, the “figure of speech” is story of normal, everyday life. As Jesus pointed out on various occasions, it is sick people who normally go to the doctor (Mark 2.17) and people do not generally fast at wedding celebrations (Mark 2.18-20) as they would after a death in the family.

So, in the normal course of events, a real shepherd enters the sheepfold in the ordinary way (not coming over the fence) and the gatekeeper recognizes him. Even the sheep know his voice. If a stranger were to try and lead them, the sheep would flee, fearful of the unfamiliar voice (John 10.1-5).

Jesus' contrast of himself with other religious leaders takes up a theme that goes back to Ezekiel. Through the prophet God denounced Israel's pseudo-shepherds and pledged to assume the role of Israel's Shepherd (34.1-31).

Jesus received his mission as Good Shepherd from the Father, thereby justifying his claim to be Shepherd of Israel even if people refused to believe him. Not just the shepherd, then, but the sheep, as well, are undergoing judgment. The issue is whether people hearken to Jesus' voice or not.

Jesus closed the first part of his discourse by declaring he was both the gate leading to salvation (“I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture”) as well as the “Coming One”, a variant title of his messiahship (“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”).

In the second half of Jesus' teaching, what distinguishes the good shepherd from the hireling is that he “lays down his life for the sheep”. As Jesus continued to speak his “figure of speech” turned into self-revelation (“I am the Good Shepherd...”). Though metaphors are employed, the address is all about Jesus and his followers (“I know my own and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father”).

When Jesus went on to speak about “laying down his life” the issue was no longer that of fighting wolves threatening the flock but of his dying on the Cross to bring all people to salvation. This included the Gentiles to be brought into the one flock by Jesus' disciples (“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice”).

Jesus closed his dramatic teaching by declaring the voluntary nature of his death and resurrection (“No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own free will... to take it up again”). This unselfish gift of himself proved that Jesus was fully obedient to the Father, even unto death (“I have received this command from my Father”).

Peter's Pentecost speech from the Acts of the Apostle used another metaphor to describe Jesus' resurrection: “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders... has become the cornerstone”. The consequence of this divine intervention is that now “there is salvation in no one else” but Jesus.

The First Epistle of John concludes that Jesus' saving deed made his disciples “children of God” who will grow more and more into his likeness (“when he is revealed, we will be like him”).

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