“When we come to the service of Christ, we come to a rough profession.”
The Jesuit poet and Elizabethan martyr, St. Robert Southwell, reminded his fellow prisoners of this sober truth in his “Epistle of Comfort.” He composed the letter lest they, jailed for the Catholic Faith, be tempted to forget that the Cross is intimately connected to the service of Christ.
St. Mark’s life as a follower of Christ was emblazoned with the sign of the Cross. The “following of Christ,” the sequela Christi, is the traditional formulation of the Christian life. St. Thomas Aquinas, for one, says it simply: “Perfection consists in following Christ.” Particularly evident in the scant details we have of Mark’s life are the challenges he encountered in his own sequela Christi. The following of Christ also serves as a major theme of Mark’s gospel and remains the most difficult challenge for our own lives today.
There is no consensus among the Fathers of the Church on whether Mark was a disciple of Christ during the Lord’s public ministry. Evidence from the New Testament and early pious legends discloses that Jesus celebrated the Last Supper in the home of Mark’s mother, Mary. It is, therefore, possible that Mark was present at the institution of the Sacraments of Holy Orders and the Eucharist—Sacraments he would one day himself receive.
Mark’s association with the two great apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, confirms his apostolic pedigree. Mark is invited by his cousin, Barnabas, to accompany him and Paul on a missionary journey. Early into the voyage, Mark returned home to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). We do not know exactly why Mark abandoned the mission; perhaps the demands of the sequela Christi were too exacting for the future evangelist. As Barnabas and Paul prepared for their second major missionary trip, strong contention arose between them over including Mark in the mission. Barnabas desired to give his relative another chance, while Paul refused, thinking that Mark might desert the mission a second time (Acts 15:36-41). Further references from the New Testament indicate that Paul and Mark later reconciled and worked together (Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11), with Paul even calling him his “fellow laborer” (Phlm 24) in his work of evangelization.
Historical evidence indicates the close relationship between St. Peter and St. Mark. Some early Christian writers claim that it was through Peter’s preaching that Mark was converted to the Christian faith. In Peter’s first epistle, Mark receives the appellation “my son” from his spiritual father, demonstrating their close friendship (1 Pt 5:13). According to tradition, the second gospel is based upon the preaching of Peter in Rome where Mark served as his scribe and interpreter. Internal textual evidence also supports this theory: Simon Peter is the first and last disciple mentioned in the gospel, so his name frames the narrative, signaling that it is his eyewitness testimony that serves as the basis for the content found therein.
In reading Mark’s gospel, it quickly becomes evident that Peter has a prominent role. He often speaks first and on behalf of the other apostles. At a key moment in Christ’s public ministry it is Peter who affirms, “You are the Christ” (Mk 8:29). Nevertheless, it is not often his successes as a follower of Christ which are highlighted, but instead, his failures. Peter himself knew the requirements of the sequela Christi.
Jesus reveals that the sequela Christi is the Via Crucis. Mark demonstrates this most clearly in the central section of his gospel which focuses on the “way” to the Cross (Mk 8:22-10:52). On the way to Jerusalem, Christ announces His Passion, death, and Resurrection several times to the apostles (Mk 8:31; Mk 9:31; Mk 10:33-34). It is in the midst of the first prediction that the Lord explains definitively where following Him leads—directly to the Cross. “If any man will follow me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mk 8:34). Upon hearing this directive, Peter rebukes Christ. Here Peter reacts for the apostles and for us fallen men and women. Instead of a triumphant king entering into His capital city to vindicate Israel, Jesus will be one who suffers at the hands of the authorities and dies an ignominious rebel’s death. Peter expects the conquering hero not the suffering Messiah.
On the eve of Christ’s death, we again see Peter’s failure to follow Christ faithfully. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Simon Peter vows that even though all the other apostles may fall away, he will not (Mk 14:29). Yet, when the soldiers arrive to arrest Christ he and the apostles forsake the Lord, running off into the darkness. Surely following Christ closely and even standing with Him at His trial would have meant death on the Cross for the faithful apostle. As the night advances and Christ is brought before the high priest, the gospel records the detail that Peter is following “at a distance” (Mk 14:54). This simple point describing the spatial separation of the disciple from his Master symbolizes the deeper spiritual distance between them, soon represented in Peter’s triple denial of Christ (Mk 14:66-72). The tragedy of Peter’s failure to follow Christ, as he had sworn, is made clear when Mark recounts that it is another Simon, one from Cyrene, who carries the Cross with Jesus to Calvary (Mk 15:21).
Mark’s gospel might seem to end on a tragic note for Peter and the other apostles, if the historical context of its composition is not recalled. The few successes and many failures of the apostles—especially of the first pontiff—in the task of following Christ seem to have been central themes in Peter’s preaching in Rome. By way of exhortation and example, then, Mark writes to Christians tempted to quail when faced with the challenges of the sequela Christi.
At the time of Peter’s preaching and Mark’s writing, the Christian community in Rome is either enduring persecution or soon will experience fierce oppression for following Christ. Some of the methods of torture and death perpetrated by the Emperor Nero upon the Christians are chronicled by the Roman historian Tacitus: “they were killed by dogs by having the hides of beasts attached to them, or they were nailed to crosses or set aflame, and, when the daylight passed away, they were used as nighttime lamps.” This savagery could cause fear and weaken the resolve of a nascent Christian. Is the Christian life, the sequela Christi, really a series of stations on the way to the Cross?
A perennial temptation in the Christian life is to think that since Christ carried the Cross, it is not necessary for His followers to do so as well. Yet the Lord spoke plainly when He told His disciples that each must deny himself “and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mk 8:34). The apostles knew Christ intimately, spent time with Him on his travels, beheld the miracles, and heard the incredible teachings—yet, they all fled when presented with the Cross. But through Christ’s resurrection from the dead, which defeated the power of sin and death, they came to know the mercy of God.
Peter and Mark act as living witnesses to the Christians in Rome of the transforming power of God’s grace. Besides the examples in his gospel, Mark’s own life testifies to the fact that he was at times unable to meet the demands of discipleship. Like Peter, Mark ran away when confronted with the wood of the Cross. But through the grace of Christ, Mark and the other disciples who exhibited cowardice were able to act heroically—they who once deserted the Lord on the way were eventually able to faithfully follow Him to the Cross. The glory of the Christian is to repent, return, and renew his commitment to the sequela Christi.
After Mark composed his gospel, tradition tells us that Peter commissioned him to found the Christian community in Alexandria, Egypt. Ultimately this is where Mark would die a martyr’s death after suffering grievous torments. Peter, who knew well the difficulties in following Christ, knowing too that Mark had seen the Cross and refused it once, nevertheless commissioned Mark to labor of evangelization. And Mark persevered in that labor until the end.
In his gospel, Mark presses his readers to consider their own response to Christ’s invitation. Caveat lector: it is a rough profession.