Mark almost certainly is the earliest of the gospels.
What did he think he was writing and why?
Probably he is writing in the late 60s AD and to the church communities maybe in Rome, as he has to explain some Jewish customs.
In the ancient world there were novels and short stories, and there were short biographies of famous people, often concentrating on key elements of their life.
But in the Bible we have noted there were long accounts of the lives (including in some cases the birth) of significant people – Moses, Samuel, David etc.
Mark seems to be blending the form of ancient biography with the style and format of the Old Testament accounts, and using some of the known story-telling skills.
He says he is going to tell the euangelion of Jesus Christ, that is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In fact, his first word is “beginning”, just like in Genesis!
And then, boom, we hear about the teaching of John the Baptist in the wilderness, linked to the verses from Isaiah. And Jesus comes to be baptised, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice from heaven declares Jesus to be God’s Son (just as Mark has said in verse 1!)
And boom, Jesus is tempted for 40 days and then we are into Jesus teaching about the Kingdom.
Mark does not include any details about the birth of Jesus – something Matthew and Luke will include in their different emphases.
If you read Mark’s gospel it moves at a pace though there are some stories where the pace slows and the detail increases – the Syro-Phoenician woman, the man oppressed by many demons.
Half way through the focus changes. Jesus now speaks of his pending death, and the disciples struggle to understand. The final quarter contains lengthy teaching on what will happen, and then a long account of the trial and crucifixion.
There are no resurrection accounts, save a young man telling the women that Jesus is raised and gone ahead of them, and the women say nothing ‘for they were afraid’.
This ending was considered so incomplete that later writers wrote further verses which you can find in brackets at the end of the gospel.
Mark sketches the life and activities and teaching of Jesus; very definitely a human being, yet from the start we know also the Son of God, the beloved of God. The centurion declares this truth as he sees Jesus on the Cross, but the disciples have struggled to understand it.
The women are fearful and silent, and the early Christians have to pick up the story – will we share the news of the resurrection or will we be silent.
What have we made of Jesus’ teaching, invitation and challenge?
For us this Advent we can enjoy a baby, and we can wrap up as it were, the story with the manger, and the animals, and Mary in her blue clothing. There is no sentimentality in Mark’s Gospel (or in any other)
The Advent Sunday reading for Year B is Mark chapter 13 where Jesus speaks of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the horror and terror for its inhabitants.
Mark was written at a time of wars and uncertainty, when Christians were at risk from Jews and from the authorities; when the resurrection of Jesus was new and when the other religions and religious and cultural movements were trying to drown out this new and out-of-tune voice.
For if the Bible is a symphony and the four gospels are a theme played in four ways, then the Bible is also a piece of music which is both an invitation and a challenge to the surrounding world.
It is a different tune, a piece of music which does not fit with the surrounding tunes and melodies.
Jesus arrives on the scene in Mark without much warning and engages in what is often a confrontational mission, yet one of invitation and healing and hope.
In what way, for us, is Advent and Christmas a gospel message, a euangelion – an announcement of good news and in what way will we share that good news, or hide it or so dress it that it loses its brightness? [A euangelion was normally a message brought by a herald, to announce a victory or good news, like the birthday of the Emperor.]