Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Feast of St. Mark: Both Helter-skelter and Significant

Wednesday is the Feast of Saint Mark, and we give thanks to God for “this witness” of Mark’s Gospel, and we “pray that we may be firmly grounded in its truth.”
In celebration of his feast day, I’d like to share with you some thoughts on Mark’s writing, from an article by John Drury in The Literary Guide to the Bible (ed. Robert Alter & Frank Kermode). 
Drury says that the opening fifteen verses to the Gospel are like a prologue, which “introduces us to, among other things, the rapidity and condensation of Mark’s style, and to his hectoring narrative intensity . . . ‘Straightaway’ is Mark’s favorite adverb; ‘run,’ ‘arise,’ ‘shout,’ and ‘amaze’ are among his favorite verbs” (409).
For Mark, “genuine understanding . . . is supernatural. So within the continuities of this world, and within the continuities of a narrative set in this world, it is discontinuous and sudden” (405). Because of this, the “shuttle” of Mark’s narrative “moves fast through present moments, back and forth between precedents and effects. Events follow upon one another apparently helter-skelter. But they are linked by deliberately concealed significances” (409).
This coexistence of apparent chaos and true significance might’ve been simpler for Mark’s first listeners to grasp, as they were a people who “believed the timetable of another world to be pressing upon mundane time. Each touch of its pressure was a promise of its eventual triumph over ordinary time,” as understood in their traditions of apocalyptic Judaism (405). For them, “God was the master storyteller, the ultimate referent of every moment” (405).
Many of us in the Harvard Episcopal community are in the midst of discernment—we’re wondering about next year, or this summer, or our far future, and (hopefully) praying about what shape it will take. We can certainly see the helter-skelter and discontinuity, but the hidden significance of all the round-abouts escapes us.
Thankfully, like Mark’s listeners, we can believe that God is “the master storyteller,” and that God’s time presses in on ordinary time. It may not be the final cymbal crash, the “divine ending” (405) of apocalyptic literature that waits in the wings of our decisions—but certainly the kingdom of God, built with the quiet drama of our everyday choices and relationships.
With this in mind—and with so many choices and options and futures hanging over our heads!—I hope you might pray with me this prayer of Thomas Merton, given to me by my own college chaplain:

                 My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the 
                 road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor
                 do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your 
                 will does not mean I am actually doing so. But I believe that the 
                 desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I never 
                 do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you 
                 will always lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing 
                 about it. Therefore, I will trust you always, though I may seem to be 
                 lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with 
                 me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.


The first image is a detail from an icon by Emmanuel Tzanes; the second is from an 1845 collection of medieval alphabets.

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