Reflections on the Mystery of Suffering Essay
The theme of the Stauros Notebook is “Reflections on the Mystery of Suffering. ” Over the past several months we have examined suffering as it is related to the violence of our times.
In this issue we will consider suffering from a different angle. We will examine the Gospel of Mark and how it relates to suffering. It is particularly appropriate that we do this now, since this is the year in which we are reading the Gospel of Mark each Sunday. Mark’s gospel is a gospel of suffering Messiahship and suffering discipleship–we can perhaps relate to both. We know Jesus as the suffering Messiah, the Suffering Servant, the Crucified.In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is moving directly, quickly, steadfastly, to Calvary.
It is a gospel of suffering discipleship–the apostles do not look good in Mark’s Gospel because they do not understand this. Jesus reprimands them many times. After the storm at sea Jesus says, “Why are you so terrified? Why are you lacking in faith ? “(4:40). After he walked on the water the gospel tells us that they had not understood about the bread which he had miraculously multiplied.
Their minds were closed to the meaning of the events, and Jesus says, “Do you still not understand? Again, after the cure of the possessed boy, the gospel tells us that they failed to understand his words. And then, in the end, in Gethsemane, they all deserted him and fled. There’s a reason for all these references to unfaithful disciples, disciples who do not under- stand, disciples who do not look good. The author of this gospel probably wrote in the late 60’s before the Temple was destroyed, and shortly after the persecutions of Nero. The Christian Community to which Mark addressed his Gospel was a community that knew suffering and knew it well.Mark is writing for a suffering community.
He needed to tell that community that Jesus suffered just as his followers were now being asked to suffer, that Jesus had told his disciples that suffering was a part of following him, and that Jesus had promised rewards to those who faithfully endured suffering. Mark is a gospel written to strengthen and encourage Christians facing martyrdom. Some Christians, many Christians, were totally faithful and underwent heroic martyrdom for the new faith, but it is very likely that others betrayed the community and ran away in fear.Just as in Gethsemane the disciples deserted him and fled, so some of these early Christians, too, deserted and fled. We know of the many martyrs but what do we know of the people who didn’t have the courage to withstand martyrdom? Think, if you will, about them–think about their suffering. Mark’s community certainly included such persons.
Let us focus on why this gospel fits the theme of Stauros, why it is a reflection on the mystery of suffering. Mark’s gospel is, first of all, a dynamic story that grips the reader with force and emotion.Some of the characteristics of Mark’s style reveal his message. The story moves quickly. Jesus moves rapidly from place to place; there is little wasted motion and a minimum of verbiage. Our examination shows how Mark’s Gospel relates to our theme.
First, this emphasis on suffering pervades the gospel. Mark’s theology is a theology of the cross. Mark’s Jesus is a suffering Messiah who moves relentlessly and rapidly to the cross. This gospel leads us to Calvary.
In his book, The Passion in the Gospel of Mark, Fr. Donald Senior, C. P. says that in this gospel the shadow of the cross falls across the entire span of Jesus’ ministry.1 Martin Kihler asserts that Mark is really a “passion narrative with a long introduction. “2 The passion occupies only two chapters of this gospel but it has strong connections with the rest of Jesus’ life.
The concept of sacrifice in Jesus’ life can only be seen as connected with his ministry: his life, his death, his resurrection, the Paschal Mystery relate to one another. Secondly, this gospel involves questions about Christology, about who Jesus really is.The central and guiding question of Mark’s gospel is, Who do you say that I am? ” (8:29). The major concerns of this Gospel are under- standing the mystery of Jesus’ identity and responding to it with faith.
Who is Jesus? Mark proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God and the Messiah. This is demonstrated throughout the New Testament but Mark proclaims it by means of the healings, the parables, the instructions, the encounters with demons, and above all the death and resurrection. For Mark, the most important means of revealing Jesus’ identify was the cross.It becomes the touchstone of all authentic faith in Jesus.
All the titles and images given to Jesus take on a true meaning when seen in the context of Jesus’ redemptive death. A third reason for examining the gospel of Mark is Mark’s concept of discipleship. In Mark’s gospel discipleship is closely bound up with the cross. The disciples do not understand suffering. In the end, they flee because they cannot come to terms with that suffering. They cannot see that suffering is a part of discipleship from which emerges a pathway of suffering.
Mark emphasizes Jesus’ desire to go the way of the cross.His point is that Jesus’ followers cannot expect a fate different from that of their crucified Lord. Ivan Havener suggests that the reason for this emphasis is “that Christian discipleship is intimately bound up with the meaning of this event . . .
Christ’s followers must expect persecution; they must take up their cross and follow him (8:34). “3 The real point is what it means to follow Jesus. Mark’s own community is experiencing suffering, and Mark wants them to know that suffering is a part of discipleship. We, too, need to know that suffering is a part of discipleship.We need to realize that, just as the cross was the way for Jesus, the cross must be the way for the disciple.
The confirmation of suffering as part of life is a source of strength for us. There is little doubt but that Mark sees the disciples not simply as historical figures from the past but as representative of Christians of his own time. The instructions Jesus gives his followers, the difficulty they have in understanding him, and Jesus’ bonds with them despite their failures, are all meant as challenge and consolation to the Christians who read the gospel.Another significant focus in Mark’s gospel is conflict.
There is conflict with the demons, conflict with the Scribes and Pharisees, conflict with both the Roman and Jewish leaders, and even conflict with the disciples. Mark 2:1-12, the story of the paralytic who was let down from the roof, is the first of five stories which depict conflict with the Jewish authorities. Fr. Senior says, “The retention of old priorities (the way we always did it! ) and resistance to the merciful bounty of his mission are what Mark identifies as the reason for the opposition to Jesus.
4 These conflict stories show “the growing opposition to Jesus on the part of the scribes, the official teachers of the Jewish religion, and the Pharisees, the lay devotees and enthusiasts for the scribal interpretation of religion. ” In Mark 1:23-26, 3:7-12, 5:1-20, and 9:14-19, we see Jesus in conflict with the demons. They recognize that their hour of destruction has arrived. Most of the conflicts, but not all, are resolved, but each is resolved in a different manner.Jesus resolves the conflict with the demons through his healing power; the conflict with the authorities comes to an end when Jesus is put to death which moreover fulfills God’s redemptive plan.
The problem with the disciples continues to the end of the gospel; whether or not it is ever resolved remains an open question, since the gospel concludes without our knowing the effects of the Resurrection on the disciples. Chapter 16, 9-20, with its post-resurrection appearances and Jesus’ ascension was probably added on by another writer.It casts the disciples in a much better light relative to Jesus. Conflict is often a significant factor in suffering: conflict with family, conflict with agencies, conflict with emotions and feelings. It is safe to say there is hardly a form of suffering that does not involve conflict. Although, just as in Mark’s gospel, some of these conflicts may be resolved, many remain unresolved.
Marks’ gospel, with its resolved and unresolved conflicts enlightens us about their significance in our lives. Read about negative effects of unresolved conflict at work or at home . A fifth reason for looking at Mark’s gospel is Mark’s concept of community.Mark’s community was predominantly a Gentile community, but most scholars agree that it included a significant number of Jewish Christians. The Jewish segment is suffering the pain of having to abandon beloved and sacred customs and practices, and the Gentile portion is still feeling the pain of being “outsiders.
” Jesus’ contact with children (9:35-42), with people from Gentile areas (3:7-12; 5:1-20), and his healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter (7:24-30) all show that Mark considers community to include both those inside and outside.Many suffering persons are outsiders. Even though in this day and age we do not have the formal taboos of the Biblical times, we do have persons who suffer–persons with AIDS, persons with disabilities, families of suicide victims, prisoners, and many others–and who are outsiders. Community, as it is portrayed by Mark, seeks to include those who suffer. A final reason for choosing Mark’s gospel is that Mark portrays a very human Jesus.
Mark shows a man with human feelings and strong emotions. Sean Freyne describes the human Jesus well when he says: . . he is weary and falls asleep (4:28); in face of suffering he is moved to the depths of his soul with compassion (1:41); he shows anger and indignation (3:5; 10:14); he can be amazed at the turn of events (6:6) or sorrowful (3:5).5 This depiction of Jesus as a very human person can give support to persons who suffer, persons who experience deep emotions and feelings, persons who need to express anger, frustration, sadness, and feel comfortable in doing so.
Mark’s Jesus is inviting to such persons, lets them know that feelings and emotions are good, and can be compassionate toward them.Mark’s gospel was written for a particular community in the first century, a community facing persecution and death, a community facing a crisis of faith, but it is just as much a gospel for today. Ours is a society that negates the value of suffering, a society that is almost addicted to “feeling good. ” Ours is a society that needs to see that suffering is a part of Christian discipleship, needs to see the appropriate function of conflict, needs to realize the value of a community which includes both those outside and inside, and needs to appreciate the appeal of Jesus’ humanness. Mark’s gospel is particularly appropriate for us today.