Compared to the other Gospels, St. Mark’s is unfairly neglected, which is why I am reading Rowan Williams’ commentary, Meeting God in Mark, during the Lent season. Williams alerts me to Mark’s design: he keeps the “Messianic Secret” until the very end when Jesus stands trial before the High Priest and divulges his true identity. “The whole Gospel is moving inexorably to this point” of divine self-declaration, to this “world-changing insight” about where God is to be found in the world. Williams writes:
Mark has none of the sustained drama of John, none of the subtly developed irony that is maintained throughout the whole story; he wants us to see here only the isolation and the sense of arbitrary power closing in. But it is in the middle of all this that Jesus makes his one utterly unambiguous claim. When the High Priest asks (14.61), ‘Are you the Anointed One, the Son of the Blessed?’ Jesus replies, ‘I am.’ The placing of this claim, this breaking of the silence, is all-important. It is when Jesus is stripped of all hope, of all power, when he stands alone in the middle of this meaningless nightmare, with no hope of life, it is then and only then that he declares who he is. And he does so in words that evoke the Divine Name itself. God calls himself I AM when he speaks to Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures (Exodus 3.13). Again, there are parallels and contrasts with the way St. John tells his story: John has Jesus say, ‘I am,’ at various crucial stages of the narrative (as in 18.5, when the soldiers come to arrest him), and Mark is no less careful in placing the words. But where John scatters the ‘I am’ sayings throughout his Gospel, Mark – as always, much more stark and economical – narrows it down to the one moment when you can be under no illusion about what Jesus faces. Then and only then does God declare himself.
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Mark has set aside the idea that we should listen to Jesus because he does wonderful things, even that we should listen to Jesus because he says wonderful things. If we are to listen to what Jesus is saying in his very existence, his mortal flesh, his death, it is something that can happen only when every possibility of hope, of love, of absolution, has apparently been swept away and all the is left is this bare claim. This mortal person (says Jesus) stands here in the place of God; and the place of God is the place of a rejected and condemned human being. Before Jesus is arrested and condemned, you might still nurture the illusion as you read that it will somehow turn out well. Perhaps there is a future in which Jesus will find support, belief, perhaps after all we shall be able to find words for him in our usual language and vocabulary. But Mark makes quite sure that we cannot sustain any such illusion by this point. This is the ‘gospel’ moment, the moment of regime change, the event that is to be announced. This is where the world, with all the language we use in and about it, is turned on its head. But – and this is where the news is unimaginably good as well as unimaginably dark and shocking – the new world which is brought into being in this way, the new world which the euangelion announces, must be one in which God cannot be dethroned by any degree of pain, disaster or failure. If the helpless, isolated Jesus says, ‘This mortal man is now where God is,’ then God’s presence and resource, his love and mercy, cannot be extinguished by loneliness or injustice, by the terrible, apparently meaningless, suffering in which human beings live. God has chosen to be, and to be manifest, at that lowest, weakest point of human experience. And so the poor and the helpless, the condemned and the isolated, reading this story told from the victim’s point of view, can know that God is with them, and that the God who is with them cannot be defeated or deposed from his Godhead.