Wednesday, May 23, 2012


St. Mark the Evangelist was an Apostle of Jesus Christ (but not one of the 12), writer of the Gospel of Mark, bishop, martyr and Patron Saint of Alexandria, Egypt. He is also the Patron Saint of Venice, Italy. His feast day is April 25.

Because Mark was a very common Latin name in ancient times, it's possible that there was more than one man named Mark referred to in the New Testament. However, it's generally believed that the writer of the Gospel of Mark was the son of a devout woman named Mary who followed Jesus and owned the house where Jesus shared the Last Supper.

After the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Disciples set out to spread the Way. Thomas, Peter, Andrew, James the Greater, James the Lesser, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thaddeus, Simon and Matthias, who replaced Judas Iscariot, soon became know as the Apostles. As writers of the Gospels, Mark and Luke are also considered Apostolic. There were others as well, such a Paul who considered himself an Apostle due to a powerful vision.

Mark set out on a mission journey with Paul and Barnabas, but turned back. Paul later refused to let Mark come with him on his next mission trip. So Mark traveled to Cyprus with Barnabas. After they returned, Paul let Mark travel with him to Rome where he met up again with Peter.

It's believed that Mark and Peter were close friends. In his Letters, Peter referred to Mark as “my son,” a term of affection. Since Mark was not with Jesus from the beginning, but Peter was, it is generally believed that Mark wrote down what Peter told him about his time with Jesus. 

Afterwards, Mark journeyed as a missionary to Egypt where he founded the Coptic faith and was the Bishop of the new Church of Alexandria. In 68 AD, for preaching the word of Jesus Christ and attracting many followers, pagans of Serapes (an Egyptian god) tied him to a horse and dragged him through the streets until his body was torn to pieces. He died a martyr’s death and became the Patron Saint of Alexandria.

St. Mark is also the Patron Saint of Venice, Italy, and is considered the core of their culture and faith.

How can this be if St. Mark never traveled to Venice in his whole lifetime? It is because his relics were brought to Venice.

Relics are bones or remains of saints. People attributed great value to these relics. So much so that in 828 AD, in a politically motivated move to secure the best of the best as their patron saint, the Venetian doge (chief magistrate) sent two merchants to steal or con away the remains of St. Mark from his tomb in Alexandria.

Their names were Bona da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello and they were successful. It is believed that with his relics lashed to the mast, St. Mark quieted a dangerous storm and saved the ship during the journey back to Venice.

Possession of the relics of St. Mark elevated Venice to the highest political position. Since St. Mark was so important to the growth of Venice, he remains an integral part of the Venetian identity.

In 1968, the Vatican gave a bone fragment of St. Mark back to Egypt as an apology for the theft. It is displayed in Cairo. The Church of Alexandria displays the head of St. Mark.

It is impossible to absolutely identify these relics as St. Mark’s. But for many, it simply doesn’t matter. St. Mark the Evangelist remains the beloved Patron Saint of both Alexandria and Venice.

James Kiefer's Hagiographies
Nat. Geo. In the Footsteps of the Apostles by Andrew Todhunter
Coptic Church Bio of St. Mark


I'm fascinated with the life story of this man who wrote such an important part of the Bible. And I love the idea that his words have lived on for so long and will continue to live on because he wrote them down -- motivation for any writer to write. Yet, I cannot find a good quote from the Gospel of Mark to prove my point. Every time I found a good one, I realized that it wasn’t Mark’s or even Peter’s words, they were the words of Jesus Christ:

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. Mark 4:3-8

St. Mark helped create people of good soil in Egypt in person and throughout the world by writing the words and Way of Jesus Christ.

I also admit to a certain mischievous pride at the gall of the two pirates, I mean, merchants, who stole the remains of a biblical saint, traveled back home and turned them over to be the foundation of the new Venetian Republic. In my imagination they are equal parts Indiana Jones and Captain Jack Sparrow, and I’m sure they were well paid.

My interest in the Saints isn't so much in the travels of their relics or miracles performed after death, but in their lives. What is it that made them a spiritual warrior for Jesus Christ? What is it that gave them the strength to go out in the world and spread His Word in the face of not the modern day negative judgment that prevents many of us from speaking up, but actual persecution and death?

I think perhaps I found a major part of that answer in what I and probably many others at my church experienced, at some level or another, in the month between when our Assistant Rector, Mark, announced his calling to another church and his last Sunday with us.

Mark came to our church straight out of seminary school and I’ve always known that our church was his training ground and that he was destined to “grow up” with us and then move on. But I knew it like I knew that my friend and neighbor after threatening to move to California for 18 years, would eventually move to California and I would be happy for her. And then last Monday, the “for sale” sign went up in front of her house. And when reality smacks you in the face, it hurts.

Mark began or strengthened many programs at our church – people wanted to be around him and with his encouragement, several stepped up into leadership roles. His sermons were always well prepared and enthusiastically delivered. People respond to sermons differently based on their own point of view or their current challenges. So I get that not all sermons spoke to my heart because they needed to speak to someone else’s heart that Sunday. Even so, they were always interesting and I came away having learned something valuable. On those occasions when his words spoke directly to my heart, whoa, it felt miraculous.

About a year and a half ago, I became reliant on Mark as he prayed with me for healing of a puzzling almost-fixed-but-not-quite ongoing health condition. Thankfully, the last piece fell into place in January and I’m fine now. He counseled me through the death of my sister-in-law and later the sudden death of my nephew. When asked to speak at his funeral, I turned to Mark in panic – public speaking at a funeral! I can’t do it. “Yes, you can,” he said. And with God’s help, I did.

At different times during this period, I agreed to help schedule the Acolytes, do the paperwork for the youth conferences, and began volunteering in the church office doing copyediting and clerical stuff. I enjoy this type of work and I have fun with the church staff. Eventually, not so much with Mark’s prodding but with his advice and totally on-purpose, ahem, lack of effort, I baby-stepped my way into the roll of Acolyte Coordinator.

Without really realizing it, the more time I spent with Mark, the more I needed to be around him. Yet, I could tell that he was ready to move on. And in my head I wanted him to move on to another church because it was time, he was ready and it would make him happy. I was driving to Costco when he called to tell me that he accepted a Rector position and would be leaving soon. I said, “Well, we knew that was coming.  Congratulations and thanks for calling.” Then I pulled into Costco and fueled up the car. 

(Actually I parked the car and asked him lots of questions about his new parish and I enjoyed hearing about it.)

It wasn’t until the next day that the reality started to sink in. A knot developed in my chest that wouldn’t go away even with tears. Eventually, I understood that the knot was a physical representation of “Oh my God, what am I going to do without him?”

And God answered. I realized something I knew all along but didn’t recognize -- Jesus resides comfortable and secure deep within Mark’s heart and envelops him with the Holy Spirit which radiates out to all of us.

I don’t mean to make Mark seem like a saint. He thinks that Chuck Norris jokes are funny, and he takes college football way too seriously -- proof positive that he’s just a man.

But Mark attracts people like a magnet.  He has over 800 Facebook friends.  It’s not a fan page, he’s not a rock star -- he’s a priest. And based on the almost total lack of status updates from his page popping up on the newsfeed, these 800 people requested his friendship and not the other way around.

I understood that if I asked Jesus into my own heart, I’d be okay. But I didn’t know how to do it for real and I didn’t want to bother Him.

And then my friend Blonnie died while our friendship wasn’t quite right. Two days later Maurice Sendak, children’s book author of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, also died and I became a mess of grief -- who else, and what’s next?

I turned to my priest, Richard, and the Tuesday Healing Service. I believe that when Richard does laying on of hands, he becomes a conduit of the Holy Spirit, and let me just say it was a powerful experience.

Two days later, I attended a meditative yoga class in which we happened to focus on our heart chakra. In the space of this class, where we were invited to open ourselves up to life force and spirit and include praying hands in our yoga positions, I truly gave myself to Jesus from my heart. The knot in my chest opened up and disappeared.

A week later, Mark gave his sermon about calling. It was one of those miracle sermons that spoke directly to me. Looking around at others crying in church, I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. In the sermon Mark explained how he was called to the priesthood, and to our church and to his new church. He delivered his message in a way that challenged many of us to allow ourselves to be called by God and follow his Way for us.

A few days later, I asked Mark for a copy of that sermon and then I asked him to autograph it for me, because despite what he thinks, he is a writer, and he’s good at it. Here’s the part that really got to me:

“Many times your head and your gut are telling you one thing and your heart another. Always follow your heart in these circumstances. I believe that it’s in your heart where the Holy Spirit lies. This doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. Usually the easy way is what your head and your gut are telling you. What’s right and what’s easy are not always the same. But remember that the heart always trumps the head and the gut.”

And that’s the secret about St. Mark, the other Apostles and martyrs; their hearts were filled with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. When they did their important, lasting but difficult tasks, God was with them and in them.

Moving away from one’s home is difficult, but Mark goes with God. And he goes to a perfect church that’s just right for him -- it’s called St. Mark’s.

I got the idea to make this cheesecake for Mark and share it with him when my family and I had him over for a good-bye dinner.

This is the World’s Best Cheesecake. No quotes. It really is the best. In their bakery, my parents made them in batches of 50 throughout my childhood and teenage years.

Somehow, in the midst of my grief, spending an entire morning creating this cheesecake and making 15 phone calls to my parents for advice felt good and I had fun.

I made a promise a long time ago never to share this recipe. So it’s not completely written down, nor is it completely memorized – it’s a family secret.

Call or get together with someone in your family and beg them to teach you a secret family recipe. It’s a connection you’ll always have to the past and a way to maintain contact in the future.  

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