on Mark 1:1-8
According to Mark, this is the beginning of the Gospel
Mark tells us that the gospel begins with baptism, and with the baptism of Jesus Christ. Matthew and Luke, however, begin their gospels with an infancy narrative, which is a good thing for us, or else we might not have had Christmas this past week. But Mark begins with the baptism, which we will celebrate this coming week with the Feast of Theophany.
It’s striking to me that we have both of these moments put forth as beginnings. It’s not like Matthew or Luke were writing prequels.
(That’s a different book, called the Protoevangelium of James, which really is like a prequel to the Gospels. It tells the story of what happened before the Gospels).
But Matthew and Luke on the one hand and Mark on the other are writing Gospels and they see fit to begin their Gospels in different places. With nativity on the one hand and with baptism on the other.
This difference is mirrored by some liturgical history. The early Church already sees a variety of rituals and calendars from one particular Church to another. In the fourth century, and possibly before, the Church in Constantinople, where our Byzantine tradition began, as well as the Church in Antioch and in Alexandria, did not celebrate two Feasts as we do today – the one of the Nativity and then also the one of the Baptism. Rather, they celebrated one great feast of Theophany on January 6th. And this feast was already a celebration of Jesus’s baptism but it was at that time also a celebration of his Nativity. So we had Christmas and Theophany at the same time in those days. Our emphasis on January 6th however was always more so on the baptism, just like the beginning of Mark.
The Church in Jerusalem also celebrated on January 6th. However, they emphasized the birth of Jesus Christ on this date. This was, as I say, a time of variety in church calendars. One Church might emphasize one thing while another Church emphasizes something else. This is also the way the Church is today. The Church has not changed in this respect, despite the notion of some that we should be homogeneous and monolithic, we are not and we never have been.
Meanwhile, the Church in Rome had associated the birth of Christ with December 25th, by a means which I described recently. And so, in the West, they were celebrating the Nativity of Jesus Christ on December 25th, not January 6th.
Later, in the fifth century, the Church in Jerusalem decided they quite liked the Roman idea and gave it a try. But it didn’t quite take at first. Only in the sixth century, did the idea of Christmas on December 25th take hold in Constantinople and all the Eastern Churches. But we weren’t going to give up our January 6th celebration and so now we have both and we emphasize the Nativity on December 25th, as the Roman Church did from very nearly the beginning, and we emphasize the baptism of Christ on January 6th, as we did from very nearly the beginning.
But do you see the parallel with the gospels?
Matthew and Luke begin their gospels with the Nativity of Jesus Christ. The western Church in the first centuries likewise always emphasized the nativity.
Mark, on the other hand, does not even mention the nativity but skips right on to the baptism of Christ. And the Eastern Churches in the first centuries likewise emphasized the baptism of Christ.
What both the Church in the East and the Church in the West were doing was proclaiming the Gospel. Just as Matthew and Luke were proclaiming the gospel in their own way. And Mark was proclaiming the Gospel in his own way. So also the Eastern and Western churches were each proclaiming the gospel in their own ways.
Remember, Mark says that the baptism is the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and so it is. He knows what he’s talking about. He is an inspired evangelist no less so than Matthew and Luke. But that doesn’t mean that the Nativity isn’t also the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is more than one way to say the same thing.
Both the Feast of the Nativity and the Feast of the Baptism are Theophanies. Great feasts were not originally intended primarily as historical commemorations or anniversaries. Rather, the primary purpose was (and really still is) theological. We are celebrating theological realities. And the theological reality we celebrate with this double Feast – this duplicated Feast of nativity and baptism – is theophany.
Theophany is the appearance of God among us. A theophany is a personal encounter with God. An experience of God making himself present in an observable way even to our senses.
Both the Nativity of Jesus I his baptism, are key moments of this Theophany.
He was born of a virgin and his birth was heralded by angels and by a star, revealing his divinity to the Shepherds and to the Magi. Joseph and Mary experienced God in the cave in Bethlehem.
In the Jordan, Christ is revealed as the Divine Son of God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit, who descends upon him in the form of a dove. And worship of the Trinity is revealed. John the Forerunner experiences God in the water of the Jordan
Both the nativity and the baptism of Jesus Christ express his theophany to us. Both are the gospel.
There’s more than one way to preach the gospel. Remember that at Pentecost the apostles began to speak in many tongues. The Lord did not reverse what happened at the Tower of Babel and make it so that once again all humans speak one language. Rather, he made it so that the gospel would be preached in all languages. Rather than making the church or the world homogeneous and monolithic, he made the gospel polyglottal.
I love that there are four Gospels. Not one. I love that there are four witnesses. I even love the points where they seem to contradict each other, because it underlines so clearly the honesty of their testimony. No two eyewitnesses ever report every detail exactly the same. If they do, you can bet they’re over-rehearsed lies, rather than genuine testimony.
In the second century, Tatian didn’t care for this and so he compiled his Diatessaron, which is a harmonization of the four gospel narratives into one. Where there are differences of detail, he chooses one. But thank God the Church did not accept his Diatessaron as our gospel book. Rather, we keep the four distinct Gospels with all their distinctiveness.
And this is an image of the Church itself. The Church is made up of many particular Churches each with their own tradition: canonical, spiritual, liturgical, theological. And this variety is a good thing. It’s inspired by the Holy Spirit. Just like the many tongues given to the apostles on Pentecost. And like the four distinct gospels. And like the two theophanies of nativity & baptism.