"The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."
We know little of Saint Mark except for the document which bears his name. He appears in the Acts of the Apostles and Saint Peter's letter; but he would merit little notice for those passing mentions. When we celebrate Saint Mark with a solemnity we celebrate his gospel.
Catholic and mainline Protestant scripture scholars generally agree that his was the first gospel. Many followed it, especially the canonical gospels Matthew, Luke and John. Others were written later but were not accepted into the canon. Those second century documents are fascinating to historians, especially to "History channel scholars," but mean nothing to the Church as a whole.
Saint Mark essentially invented the form of "gospel." The word formed through English usage from "God spell," meaning, "a good story." It is used to translate the Latin evangelium.
We can assume Mark was a well educated young man; raised in, and deeply familiar with, Jewish religion. He came to the Lord early in life and, as Saint Luke and Peter attest, knew many of Jesus' first disciples. More importantly, he knew the stories and their interpretations as Christian missionaries fanned out from Jerusalem throughout the known world, from India to Spain, from North Africa to Galacia and Gaul.
Finally he took pen in hand and wrote, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Because he begins his narrative with that beautiful word, it now means both the Good News that we celebrate and a particular literary form. Saint Mark arranged the stories into a plausible sequence. They begin with Jesus' origins in Galilee, proceed with his journey to Jerusalem, and conclude in his crucifixion. There is a theme to his stories, which is the gradual revelation of Jesus' identity to the disciples. The crowds and the authorities don't know what to make of Jesus, and he offers them little help. However, his inspired disciples see it, but not clearly until his crucifixion. In fact, it's the gentile centurion, witnessing his agonizing death, who makes the ultimate statement of faith, "Truly this was the Son of God."
The Gospel ends abruptly with the women's seeing a "young man" in the tomb who says,
"Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold, the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.’”
But they, "...went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."
Many people scratch their heads over this sudden ending. The early Church was apparently dissatisfied with it, for Matthew, Luke and John give us several stories of Jesus' appearances, although they do not create a coherent narrative.
Perhaps Mark's unsaid conclusion is, "...and the rest is history." We use that expression when we would tell people about the prehistory of a person or event. In this case, everyone already knows the Good News that the Crucified and Risen Lord heals, reconciles, redeems and reigns over us by the gift of his Holy Spirit.
Oddly, Saint Paul seemed to assume that's all you need to know. He never refers to any incidents in the life of Jesus except his Last Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection. They are the essential stories, the foundation, of the Eucharist. Without that triduum the Mass would make no sense. If he knew Mark's stories of conflict, controversy and revelation he wasn't especially interested. All they really needed was the daily guidance of the Holy Spirit as they worshiped the Father and the Son.
Obviously the Church felt we needed more. Saint Mark was the first to set to work. He gathered stories of Jesus of Nazareth, and rewrote them with an eye to Jewish tradition and gentile needs. A marvelous story teller with a talent for detail and context, he sifted the inspired wheat from the historical chaff and described a human being who is both God and man, with the proper emphasis on both That is no mean feat! When Matthew and Luke began their writing they were standing on the shoulders of a giant!