Thought for the Week 20th December 2020

Pardon The Interruption

(by Rev Paul Graham)

Read Mark 1:1-8

It might seem a little strange to have our reading for the Sunday preceding Christmas to be drawn from the only synoptic gospel that doesn’t include a nativity story[1]. For the shepherds, we look to Luke. For the Wise Men, we refer to Matthew. For the donkey, sadly we have to admit that it only appears in countless nativity plays in primary schools across the world. For all the joy of angelic visitations, we can rely on both Matthew and Luke to give us appearances aplenty.

But when it comes to Mark, there’s not even the mention of a birth (though we can safely assume that he will know that Jesus didn’t arrive in a kind of reverse-Elijah chariot[2]). We get a quick namecheck and then it’s straight into the action with John’s fiery message of salvation. But it’s the namecheck that I want to spend some time on.

For a start, it’s a bit unfair to use the full title that Mark gives, “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). If you’ve got one of those Bibles with footnotes, it will probably tell you that the second part is not found in some manuscripts, which is worth bearing in mind.[3] This is not to say that we should dismiss this as it is an important way that Mark uses to bookmark his gospel (the only other time he uses this description for Jesus is when it’s used by the Centurion at the foot of the cross in Mark 15:39[4]).

But it’s not that slightly debatable inclusion that we’re focussing on today; it’s what many would assume is Jesus’ surname. I must be honest, I don’t know what Joseph’s surname was, but I would be very surprised if it was Christ (or at least it would be an incredible coincidence). This is because Christ (or Greek Christos) means “anointed one” or “chosen one”. Even more homogenously, Christos is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Messiah, meaning that Handel had a range of equivalent names he could have chosen for his oratorio.

So, right at the beginning, we get the idea that Mark is giving us an unsubtle clue as to the significance of Jesus. To a Hebrew audience, they would know from the outset that Mark’s intent is to show that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. There had been a number of pretenders to this particular crown[5] but Mark is stating his claim early. It’s almost as if he’s working scientifically: his messiah hypothesis will be proved by the evidence to follow.

For his audience, this would have been exciting and enticing. It’s a bit like the smell of the Christmas dinner; we know that there is something good on the way (opinions on the merits of sprouts notwithstanding) and we can’t wait to tuck in. So to with Mark’s readers (or hearers in the original oral tradition of story-telling); the claim of Jesus as Messiah (Christ) was as much a draw for them as the smell of pigs-in-blankets (or vegetarian equivalent) is to us.

To be honest, the parallels with Christmas dinner don’t end there. Once we’re drawn in with the anticipation of the action to come, we get to tuck into the rest of Mark’s gospel account. It is often said at our dinner table that the dinner takes a long time to prepare (crossed bottom sprouts or not), whereas the eating of it seems to take mere minutes. Mark’s gospel is like a gallop across the plate, sampling a bit of miracle here, a bit of teaching there, and then onto the heavy pudding of the crucifixion and resurrection.

But for Mark there is always the initial statement of intent in view: Jesus is going to be shown to be the Messiah as claimed (though the man himself was reluctant to self-identify in those terms, probably for safety reasons). Starting with the hors d’oeuvres of John’s preaching, we know with whom we are being presented. Jesus is going to be something different from your run-of-the-mill wannabe messiahs, someone who will make people sit up and take notice.

It seems right and proper to understand this in the context of today. For the whole of this year, we have had the shadow of COVID-19 hanging over us. Remember back in January, when there were vague reports of this mysterious new virus emanating from a province of China few of us will have heard of? Remember how we laughingly said that the school closures in March meant that we would have four weeks of Easter holidays, before facing the reality of home-schooling through the rest of the academic year? Remember how plans were torn up, diaries went unfilled and that for many the only journey beyond their front door was the Thursday cacophony of appreciation for our health workers?

COVID-19 has interrupted our lives, and not in a positive way in so many respects. People have lost loved ones either as a direct result of catching the virus, or because medical priorities changed to cope with the expected increase in demand. We will all have had events and occasions cancelled, possibly more than once as the shifting sands of lockdown segued into Tiers and back again.

This level of interruption has resonated around the world. There is no nation that has been exempt from the threat of pandemic, though the responses have been markedly different. We do now have hope, though. Vaccination programs are gathering pace as people are prioritised and jabbed accordingly. Maybe there is finally light at the end of the tunnel as the days start to lengthen again?

We also ought to recognise that interruptions are pretty constant, albeit usually in smaller forms. We face our own personal interruptions because of a change in circumstances. These can be good (new job, new home, new season of Doctor Who, etc) or they can be bad (illness, divorce, death, etc). Either way, our method of dealing with these interruptions will depend on what they are and who we are.

Jesus coming to Earth as the Messiah caused the biggest interruption that the world has ever known since the very beginning. How those in authority dealt with him then we will find out as we travel to Easter next year. However, how you deal with this yourself is up to you. I know what I did many years ago when I first started to understand that these stories weren’t just good Sunday School fodder. What about you…?


[1] The synoptic gospels are Matthew, Mark and Luke. John, equally devoid of a nativity story, is of a genre all of its own…

[2] 2 Kings 2:11

[3] For those who like to excavate, bear in mind that there are a number of different sources for the Bible, with some limited to scraps of parchment that scholars and archaeologists have uncovered over the centuries. That’s before they get to translate from the peculiarity of ancient Greek, that had no punctuation, capitalisation or spacing between letters. Who would be a biblical scholar, eh?

[4] “Truly this man was the Son of God” – in your best John Wayne voice as per The Greatest Story Ever Told.

[5] Around the time of Jesus’ birth there lived a freed slave called Simon who made this claim against his Roman former owners – suffice to say that it didn’t end well for him.

(Photo by Jose Aragones on Unsplash)