The Markan Nativity

On my first New Testament quiz of the year I always set the same question: “Outline Mark’s version of the Nativity story.” Without fail one or two students fall for it and quickly learn that their assumptions about the gospels will not always withstand the scrutiny of actually reading them. The absence of the traditional birth narrative in Mark then becomes a running joke in class in the run up to Christmas, with hilarious gags such as

“Who will win the Turner (modern art) Prize this year? The empty space entitled ‘Christmas according to St. Mark!'”

doing the rounds.

All of this, of course, does not do justice to the Markan account, whose account of the nativity of Christ is rather profound. True, there is no star, no shepherds, no Christmas card scene, but the theology of Jesus’ (re-)birth is no less interesting for all that. In Mark 1, Jesus is born in four ways:

1. Through the simple testimony of Mark: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (v.1).

2. Through the testimony of God at his baptism, the beginning of his public ministry: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased” (v.11).

3. By the evidence of the mesmerising effect he has on others: “And immediately they left their nets and followed him” (v.18).

4. Via the testimony of his first miracle: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (v.24).

In a few verses, Mark establishes that this man from Nazareth has been reborn as the Christ. This is a nativity as striking as the coming of the babe of Bethlehem. It moves me because it marks a path of discipleship and rebirth (sacrament and service) that is closer to the experience of mere mortals than the spectacular wonders of Christmas, beautiful though they are.

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We share some great sacred music here at BCC, so you would forgiven for passing by this one, except you would be wrong. I heard this arrangement as part of an Advent service in Worcester Cathedral today. It is stunning.

Comments

  1. (My 400th post at BCC.)

  2. Great post, Ronan: I love your quiz idea, but even more your account of how Mark establishes that Jesus is the Christ. And the music is great!

    (Also: congrats on number 400.)

  3. I think it’s a genuine birth narrative. Mark describes Jesus of Nazareth’s rebirth as Jesus Christ.

  4. Ronan, this is wonderful. A quiz like yours would be welcome in Sunday School.

    Mark gets to the heart of things very quickly. His narrative is practical and useful. It’s not my favorite of the Gospels, but his feels the most trustworthy (for lack of a better word).

  5. One of my favorite Christmas songs, in an ethereal arrangement! Thank you!

  6. Can’t imagine how wonderful that must have sounded in Worcester Cathedral!

  7. Can’t truly convey it, but the experience of listening to this in the cathedral, sung with stunning beauty by teenagers, some of whom I teach and whose company I enjoy, was profoundly moving. Advent is wonderful.

  8. Best Christmas carol, hands down. It’s in the Dutch LDS hymnbook and we pull it out each year. Lovely post.

  9. You could probably trip up a few more of your students by asking how many wise men there were (the scriptures don’t actually say.) When scripture stories get popularized or dramatized it’s great, but that doesn’t replace the need for us to be familiar with the actual text itself.

    When I was doing a sharing time in Primary once about Moses, several of the kids tried to tell me verbatim the plotline from the Dreamworks movie Prince of Egypt. Of course that movie took a lot of artistic liberties with the actual story, but try telling that to the kids!

  10. I enjoyed your insights here, and a beautiful hymn (by a Minnesota group!) I used to do that one with a madrigal group (different arrangement) and I do wish it were in our English hymnal.

  11. Our director of music listens to that group to get ideas for new arrangements.

  12. Jenny Evans – I ran into the same problem a few years back when I was talking in Primary about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When I mentioned the large idol that had been built, a bunch of kids excitedly yelled out that it was a giant bunny. My own kids were never into Veggie Tales, so one of the other leaders had to enlighten me as to why the kids assumed the Babylonians made a giant chocolate bunny.

    Beautiful music, thank-you.

  13. Abu Casey says:

    I don’t get it. I think pulling a Markan nativity out of the text would be interesting and cool, but these passages don’t scream “nativity” (well, “birth”) to me (I’m not sure they whisper it either, FWIW).

    Maybe if we use the idea of baptism as rebirth in then I could see something like no. 2 working. But I don’t understand reading the other points as (re)births. Would you mind walking me through the logic here? Is it something like this:
    No. 1 works because “Beginning” = birth and a birth = beginning.
    No. 4 works because there’s a naming or identifying component to it? So a loose parallel would be Jesus is being “named” as Christ. (This could also work with no. 2).
    I’m really not sure how to make 3 work.

  14. Happy 400! Great little piece. Fitting.

  15. Abu,
    It’s more a devotional musing than a piece of scholarship, but I think there is some validity in understanding that Mark doesn’t include a nativity story because he does not see it as necessary. In twenty-odd verses a human being is born in the text as Son of God. His baptism is the re-birth and crucial for Jesus’ own self-understanding (only he hears the voice from God), a testimony re-iterated by other supernatural forces (the demons) and one which has a powerful charismatic effect on the disciples. Given all that, you don’t need stars and wise men; Jesus’ ministry is “born” in the textual witness.