By Jay Thomas
As the season after Epiphany trudged through these long winter months before ceding its place to Lent, the Christmas season faded to an afterthought in the rearview mirror. The regular hum-drum of life returned, and with it, the lectionary returned to its Year B pattern of reading through the Gospel according to Mark with good measures of John’s Gospel thrown in. Like a barren winter tree against a cold blue sky, the contrast between these two books could not be starker. Besides their literary differences, when these books are read in tandem, it can seem like they are telling two completely different stories about the same thing.
How do we deal with this jarring contrast? Are they both true? Is the truth a sum of the whole? Or does truth lie only in the most compelling version? These questions are ever-present as one considers the fourfold gospel narrative — especially the juxtaposition between Mark and John. Whichever way we look at it, there are deep differences between these gospel accounts, but — if we are willing to see it — there is also a vital cohesion that binds them together. While there are entire books written to resolve the differences in gospel accounts, I would like to offer a simple musical analogy to articulate coherence amidst differences in these two gospels as we encounter them through our lectionary this year.
Like the gospels themselves, a Classical symphony is composed of four movements, each of which is drastically different from the one that preceded it, and each of which is able to stand alone (and often does in concerts). However, it is best appreciated and understood in light of the other three movements. The symphony as a whole is the piece of music, in the same way that the gospel is a fourfold account.
Mark’s Gospel, although not first in the canon, is the first of the gospels to be written and, like most symphonies, it opens at a fast tempo. Mark uses the term “immediately” — like an accented staccato — nine times in the first chapter (1:10, 12, 18, 20, 21, 23, 29, 30, 42). This aggressive pace is balanced against Mark’s repetitive refrain of silence or mystery. After his first miracle in Mark 1:25, Jesus commands: “Be silent!”, and this theme carries throughout the whole. Mark opens our symphony like an allegro misterioso: fast and mysterious. (For an example, see Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor 1. Allegro.) Mark’s masterpiece is much more than veiled mysteries; Richard Hays reminds us that “Mark’s proclamatory mystagogy is meant to lead readers, through a mysteriously allusive reading of Israel’s Scripture, into recognizing Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel” (Reading Backwards, p. 33).
The mystery and silence in Mark are not meant to delude, because Mark himself informs us that “nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light” (4:22). Yet, although Mark claims that all will be brought to light, he ends his gospel in a stark terror: “They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid” (16:8). If Mark’s Gospel was meant to stand alone, then we too may be left in fear and trembling, like a movement ending in dissonance or an off-beat.
But Mark is not the end of our symphony; instead, he establishes the motifs and refrains that will be echoed in the remaining movements. Moreover, the fourth gospel, the last to be written, will be the rondo, the movement in which all the motifs established in Mark are renewed and the promise that “all will be brought to light” is realized (to continue with the example, listen to the final movement of Mozart’s concerto from above: 3. Rondo).
Indeed, in John’s opening he proclaims: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5). Hays, in commenting on John’s use of Old Testament prophecy, writes that “he frames each [Old Testament] image that he employs with luminous clarity against a dark background, like the figures at the center of Rembrandt’s portraits” (Hays, p. 96). We may extend this analogy and consider that the dark background is Mark’s Gospel; in so doing we realize that the bright image in the center demands the contrast provided by the background: John without Mark is undefined; Mark without John is a shadow. The difference between them is stark, “unlike the Gospel of John — which explicitly declares that Jesus is the Logos, the Son who is one with the Father — Mark shies away from overt ontological declarations. Nonetheless, Mark’s Gospel suggests that Jesus is, in some way that defies comprehension, the embodiment of God’s presence” (Hays, p. 19). These allusions of Mark become the explanations of John. This “embodiment of God’s presence” becomes the redundant theme that is so typical of the rondo. John over and again repeats Jesus’ refrain that “I am” (John 6:35, 8:12, 10:7, 10:11, 11:25, 14:6, 15:1), asserting his oneness with the “I AM” of the Old Testament: God. He is the revealed embodiment of God’s presence that is mysteriously present within Mark.
Like any good symphony, the four-fold gospel carries the listener through a variety of emotions; not least of all the emotion of discomfort. The oft-noted dissonance that we experience between the different accounts results in a prolonged tension that is a fundamental aspect of that discomfort. But, as all musicians know, tension serves a vital role in a composition; tension exists for its repose. The development of tension when Mark is read against John finds its repose when John is read as the rondo to Mark’s allegro minore. No longer are they in competition; rather, they exist for one another and complement one another: “It is only within a fourfold gospel that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John can and must be seen as complementary, their differences enhancing and enriching the truth of the message rather than undermining it. The fourfold gospel is greater than the sum of its parts” (Francis Watson, The Fourfold Gospel, p. 103).
The minor key — the mystery — that is developed and brought to the fore in Mark’s Gospel is reclaimed in John’s Gospel, but ultimately the major key gradually shines through, culminating not in an ending of terror but an ending devised “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31); because, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5).
Unfortunately, each analogy can only go so far, and time does not permit me to discuss the other two gospels — the other two movements of our symphony — but as the years go on, listen to the slow and painstaking details of the adagio within Matthew and the light and joyful storytelling through parables like a scherzo in Luke — all of which are recapitulated in the continual rondo of John. Hear in the gospel a varied, yet harmonious, musical chorus leading you to encounter our Lord.
Jay Thomas (B.S., U.S. Naval Academy) a former Nuclear Surface Warfare Officer in the Navy now serves as a Chaplain Candidate in the Naval Reserve (Jurisdiction of the Armed Forces and Chaplaincy) and is a distance Seminarian at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.