The renewal of the Catholic Mass, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on April 3, 1969, made major revisions in the way that the Sacred Scriptures were proclaimed in the Eucharistic celebrations. In the previous missal the Sunday liturgy contained two Scripture readings: a selection from one of St. Paul’s Epistles, and a selection from one of the four Gospels. The same cycle of readings was repeated annually.
In 1970 Catholics around the world began to hear three Scripture proclamations at Mass. The first came from the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament; the second from St. Paul, and the third from one of the Gospels. The Church introduced a three year cycle of readings to expose worshippers to a broader expanse of the revealed Word. I would like to put to rest, though, an oft repeated “blogger mythology” claim that Catholics will hear the entire Bible over the three year cycle. Far from it. If a Catholic went to Mass 365 days a year, that is, weekdays and Sundays over the entire three year cycle, he or she will hear 13.5% of the Hebrew Scripture and 71.5% of the New Testament. For Sundays only, the figure is considerably less. I am grateful to Father Felix Just, S.J. for his statistical breakdown. Cursory hearing of Scripture at Mass is not “Scripture study.” That is our work.
More to the point, the developers of today’s liturgical format designated that year A, B and C are devoted to specific evangelists. Thus, we are currently in Year B, which is the year of St. Mark. By the 1960’s the Church enjoyed enough confidence in its scholars to catechize its members to the unique nature of each Gospel through the Mass, and the importance of understanding the themes and emphases unique to each Evangelist. This, liturgically speaking, this is our year to follow “Mark’s Jesus,” so to speak, and what an intriguing and disturbing message emerges when this Gospel stands on its own two feet.
As you might expect, I will talk at considerable length about Mark’s Gospel on many Tuesdays to follow. But a few highlights need to be noted here. Mark’s Gospel is historically the first, and it was a major source for Matthew, Luke and John who wrote years later. This Gospel, probably written in the 60’s A.D. (at least thirty years after the crucifixion) is the only Gospel written before the Fall of Jerusalem. It is arranged around very primitive oral traditions of the first sermons of the Christians: that Jesus was a man sent by God to proclaim a new reign of forgiveness of sin, that God’s new reign was demonstrated by the deeds and works of Jesus. Because of the radical claims of Jesus, he was put to death, and any follower who took up his message would likely die with him to await God’s vindication. Even Jesus’ own townspeople thought he was crazy, or at least at the lunatic fringe.
Note what is not in this Gospel: no Christmas narrative, virtually no parables, no Sermon on the Mount, few prolonged teachings or disputations. The Resurrection account is all of eight lines and ends in confusion; three subsequent authors added protracted and less startling endings. For centuries Catholic scholars looked askance at Mark (though never questioning its revealed nature) as possibly deficient in comparison with the other three Gospels. It is only in modern times that we have come to understand this first Gospel as a reflection of how Jesus impacted his earliest followers.
This is not a comforting Gospel. Preaching and catechesis involving Mark is challenging. Listeners are disquieted. Talk of faith, abandoning all, carrying the cross, and trusting in life after the grave— this is the thrust of Cycle B, the year of Mark. If nothing else, do not succumb to the temptation of watering down the inspired intent of St. Mark.