April 25 – Mark the Evangelist

The Apostle and Evangelist Mark (d. ca. 68, maybe) wrote the first of the four Gospels in the New Testament and the liturgy that is still the main worship service of the Coptic Church. He is traditionally equated with the “John Mark” of Acts and the cousin of Barnabas mentioned in Colossians and Philemon, although not by Eusebius, who sees three Marks where others see one. We will not make cheap jokes about mind-altering substances.

According to tradition, Mark was born in Cyrene, Pentapolis, northern Africa, and his parents Aristopolus and Mary moved to Jerusalem to avoid being sword chow for the Berbers. His father died when he was still young, and he was adopted (as it were) by Peter, who was related to Aristopolus by marriage. Unless by “tradition” you mean the tradition by which he was born in Jerusalem, and after our Lord’s ascension catechized and baptized his father after slaying two lions (hopefully not from the Leonine Desert Mortuary Services, LLC[1]) on one of their father-son constitutionals. All traditions agree that he was well-educated both in Jewish Law and the Greek classics (and maybe Latin), as paid for by either his wealthy parents or Simon Peter the fisherman. It was in his mother’s home that the Last Supper was held, and many equate him with the young man who ran away naked from the Garden of Gethsemane when our Lord was taken captive. He was a traveling companion of both Peter and Paul before turning to his own paths.

Mark is honored as the founder of the Coptic Church, and as the first to preach the Gospel in Alexandria, and it is to that part of his story we now turn. When he arrived in Alexandria, he went to a cobbler’s shop to have his sandal repaired. The cobbler, Anianos by name, was clumsy but monotheistic, for when he slipped and awled his hand, he cried, “O One God!” which as oaths go is pretty darned theological, I’m sure you’ll agree. Mark took this as a sign that the city was ready to hear the Gospel, and after miraculously healing the man’s hand, he evangelized him, and Anianos’ whole family was baptized that very night. As the church there grew, the pagans started to get a little hot under the collar (which is easy to do in Alexandria in the summer months). When they started asking for Mark by name at the post office, he decided to clear out for a spell and let things settle down. He ordained a bishop (Anianos of course) and some priests and deacons, then lit out for Rome, staying just long enough to watch Peter and Paul get martyred. When he moved back to Alexandria, he found that things were going swimmingly, and they had even built a small basilica in the burbs.

Easter in 68 fell on the same day as the feast of Serapis, the god of Mexican shawls (kidding!), and when the pagan revelers spilled into the streets, they nabbed Mark and dragged him through the city by a rope. “Lead the ox to Baucalis!” the people cried, naming the staging area for oxen being sacrificed to Serapis. When they got there it was late, though, so Mark was thrown in prison. An angel appeared to him, comforted him, and told him his time was at hand. “Thank y—” he began, but the angel disappeared. “Thank you, O Lord, for sending—” he began again, but Christ himself appeared, telling him, “Peace be to you, Mark!” and calling him disciple and evangelist, which he was. “Oh my Lord J—” he began, but the vision was gone.

The next day the Serapists dragged him around the city until he was dead. They were going to cremate him, but a fierce storm blew up and they all ran for cover, which allowed the Christians (who weren’t afraid of no storm) to gather his body and bury it properly. If not permanently; most of it now resides in Venice, although his head is in Alexandria, and another bit of him is in Cairo.

[1] See Mary of Egypt (Apr 1).