Sunday, April 25, 2010

Happy Sunday! Today is the Feast of St. Mark!

In this morning’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus Himself tells us: “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.”

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Christ is Risen! Don’t forget - it’s still Eastertide! The Feast of St. Mark almost always falls within Eastertide…except on the rare occasion that Easter Sunday itself falls on April 25th…which last happened in 1943 - and won’t happen again until the year 2038!!

After college and before I came back to the Anglican Church, some of you may know that I was doing some of my studies with the Antiochian Orthodox Church. From the first moment I walked into an Orthodox sanctuary, I was always fascinated by the iconography. It’s really quite stunning, visually…and if you have ever had your senses assaulted by attending any Liturgy in an Orthodox church, you know what I mean! At the Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Los Angeles, which happens to be directly across the street from St. Vincent’s Hospital where I was born, they have an enormous icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary - - of course, they call Her the “Theotokos - the God Bearer” - and she is perhaps ten-times life-size - written on the curved apse of the Sanctuary. For your edification, in the Orthodox tradition, Icons are “written” - they are not “painted”. So, far from being merely imaginative creations of the iconographer, icons are more like scribal copies of the Bible than paintings.

As I would come to learn, most Orthodox Churches also have icons of the four Evangelists…Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John…prominently placed somewhere in the church. If you have never been, do yourself a favor and see the inside of St. Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Church right over here at Pico and Normandie. St. Sophia’s has probably has the most beautiful examples of these icons of the Evangelists. And…in case you have never noticed, right here in the Sanctuary of St. Mary of the Angels, there are four stained-glass windows dedicated to the images of the Four Evangelists….(Point them out)

From what I can tell, there is a definite continuity in the icons that depict St. Mark, the great Evangelist whom we celebrate today. He is usually depicted as a younger man, with curly brown hair and a beard. There is a certain familiarity in the facial features in all of the St. Mark icons I have seen…leaving me to believe that in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition - going back to the very beginning, there was somebody who had an accurate description of what the Evangelist actually looked like. I think that the artist who captured St. Mark in the stained-glass window here in our Sanctuary must have been picturing a middle-aged Mark - - here he is shown as old and bald - probably to give the clergy sitting on the sedilla here some comfort in their old age.

In many of the iconic depictions of Mark, we see a lion. The Lion of St. Mark is a winged lion, the emblem of the evangelist. If you want to see the most famous depiction of the winged lion, look for the bronze statue surmounting a granite column in the Piazzetta at Venice, where the winged lion is holding in its fore paws an open book representing St. Mark's Gospel. The winged lion is also prominent in the stained glass window we have here today…if you have not noticed it, come forward after Mass and look for yourself!

Besides having these traditional “snapshots“, if you will, of St. Mark, what is it that we know about him? We know that he was not numbered among the Twelve Apostles.

There is nothing about the life of St. Mark which connects him particularly to April 25. Putting his feast day on April 25 appears to be another example of how the church in its early years took over pagan festivals that existed already and put a Christian spin on them -- setting Christmas on December 25 is the prime example.

In the ancient world, April 25 was the day on which farming people paraded around their fields and prayed to the pagan god who was in charge of protecting crops from mildew. Over time the church introduced the custom of singing Christian litanies in procession on this day, and later extended the commemoration to include St. Mark. So his day is the relic of a sort of springtime festival whose roots are not unconnected to those of Arbor Day and (dare I mention it) Earth Day (Ugh.)

In any event, the most significant fact about St. Mark himself is that he wrote the second New Testament Gospel. Unlike St. Matthew and St. John, he does not claim to have been an eyewitness to the events he writes about, but, as we can clearly see from reading Scripture, he is a character that plays no minor role later on in the New Testament.

We know that his mother's house is where the believers pray for St. Peter's release from jail in the Book of Acts; Mark goes with St. Paul and St. Barnabas on their missionary journey; and he is an associate of both St. Peter and St. Paul later on in Rome. He is believed to have been the founder of the church in North Africa, and the popes of the Coptic Church of Egypt call themselves "successors to St. Mark". As I mentioned before, the center of his cult in the west is at Venice, where his bones are thought to have been brought in the eighth or ninth century.  St. Mark is claimed by Venice as their Patron Saint.  He is also the Patron Saint of notaries

St. Mark's Gospel is the shortest one of the Four Gospels… and in some ways the most direct. In his account of Jesus' arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, he writes, "A certain young man, dressed only in a linen cloth, was following Jesus. They tried to arrest him, but he ran away naked, leaving the cloth behind." Some scholars have speculated that that young man may well be St. Mark putting himself into the story -- as sort of a Maundy Thursday "streaker".

St. Mark, the Saint who’s Feast we celebrate today, is given the lofty title: “Evangelist” by the Church. Only himself and Sts. Matthew, Luke and John are given this title. There is unfortunately much confusion about this word today - perpetuated by the media that loves to give labels to people they are too lazy to describe. What does it mean to be an “evangelist”. The word evangelist comes from the Koine Greek word εὐαγγέλιον (transliterated as "e-van-gelion") via the Latin "Evangelium”, and is found only three times in the New Testament. The word has the same root as the word translated 'gospel' or 'good news.' Thus, an evangelist is 'one who tells good news' or 'a proclaimer of the gospel.' Simply speaking, an evangelist is one who publicly proclaims the gospel.

There is unfortunately much made today of the so-called “differences” between so-called “Evangelicals” and “Catholics”. I don’t think there could be any worse differentiation made. I believe that we are all called to be “Evangelists”!

I have been a victim of this purported difference between Catholics and so-called “Evangelicals” (Tell story of the girl at Best Buy - see future blog for a recounting of this painful story!!)

The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church that we say that we believe in, is, by nature and by Jesus’ own command, “Evangelical”. Quite frankly, “evangelism“ - the spreading of the Good New is our job…it’s spelled out clearly for us in the Second Office of Instruction, on page 291 in the Book of Common Prayer.

Question. What is your bounden duty as a member of the Church?

Answer. My bounden duty is to follow Christ, to worship God every Sunday in his Church; and to work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom.

This is the root of Evangelism…we are bound by our Baptismal vows to “work and pray and give for the spread of God’s Kingdom". The Apostles, and we, by virtue of Apostolic Succession, are given our “marching orders” by none-other-than Jesus Christ Himself, in what has been called The Great Commission. St Matthew records Our Lord’s words in this way, and - I hope these sound familiar:

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:” St. Mark’s Gospel records Christ’s words as: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”

So…unless you happen to have a note excusing you from this Command, signed by Our Lord Himself….THIS MEANS YOU!!

The Prayer Book's collect for today prays that we will allow ourselves to be instructed by St. Mark's teaching. Allowing ourselves to be come “Evangelists”. The best way to do that is, quite obviously, to study his Gospel. If we are rooted in his teaching we will not be, to quote the collect, "Like children carried away with every blast of vain doctrine."

That imagery is taken from today's epistle, where St. Paul talks about how Jesus parcels out gifts in the church. After we are baptized, we all have gifts. We are supposed to use our gifts not to call attention to ourselves but to help build up the body of the church.

As we work to build up the body, we mature ourselves. St. Paul says we grow up into the image of Jesus -- the Holy Ghost makes us more into what Jesus is in his nature - what St. Paul calls "a perfect man ... the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ."

As we grow into Christ, we become more stabilized in what we believe and in what we do. We are no longer so much like children who cannot make up their minds or focus upon any one thing for very long -- who are susceptible to any attractive new idea and any sort of deceptive trickery someone might use to try to get us off the right path.

Flightiness in beliefs and actions and susceptibility to anything new are the prevailing sins of our period of history -- especially in the church. The antidote for that sort of instability is to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” such things as St. Mark's Gospel.

Today's Gospel is taken from what St. John writes about Jesus' long speech at the Last Supper. In it he uses another image for the church -- one that is especially appropriate if we are thinking about growing plants. The Old Testament says repeatedly that the people of God are like a vineyard. God plants it, he tends it and takes care of it, and he tries to make it fruitful, but careless vinedressers tend to let the vineyard go to seed, and wild boars run through it and root up the vines.

Jesus says, "I am the true vine, my father is the pruning gardener, and you my followers are the branches." Since we are merely branches -- offshoots of the vine -- the only way we can bear fruit and stay alive is to remain rooted in the main trunk of the vine. That means we have to stick with Jesus as he reveals himself to us in such places as St. Mark's Gospel. If we get separated from him, we wither away and die just as a branch does if it gets cut off from its trunk.

To push this metaphor a bit farther, the sap of the vine which runs from the trunk into the branches is like the Holy Ghost who connects us to Jesus and gives us his life. We will most certainly experience hardship and trouble in our lives, but that is not a mistake.

Sending us hardships to test us is the way God disciplines us and helps us grow up - just as a gardener will cut branches back so they can, in the end, bear even more fruit.

So we give thanks to God today for the work and the writings of St. Mark the Evangelist. In this Easter season he stands out for us as a steadfast witness to the resurrection of Jesus. "Christ is risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept."

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Christ is Risen!

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