Today the Coptic Orthodox Church remembers the martyrdom of the apostle of Egypt, St Mark the Evangelist. Born in Cyrene in Northern Africa near Pentapolis to Aristobulous and Mary, he was born of the tribe of Levi and was brought up as a learned student of Hebrew and Greek. His name was John Mark (Mark being his surname Acts 12:12) and the Lord Christ spoke of him when he told the disciples to go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘My time is at hand, I will keep the passover at your house with my Disciples.’ (Mat 26:18) His family house was the first Church where the passover was eaten, they hid their after the crucifixion and in its upper room the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost.The family emigrated to Jerusalem where St Peter was married to a cousin of Aristobulous, and Mark visited Peter’s house often to be instructed in the faith. Once Aristobulous and Mark were travelling through the wilderness of the Jordan and encountered a ravenous lion and lioness, where St Mark interceeded and called on the name of the Lord Christ for protection and the lion dropped dead. His father marvelled and was baptised.
St Mark was one of the younger seventy disciples of the Lord who preached the kingdom, and was always in the background in the Gospel accounts of the Lord Christ. He was also a relative of St Barnabas, and after the ascension accompanied him and St Paul on evangelical missions through Antioch, Selucia, Cyprus, Salamis, and Perga Pamphylia where he left and returned to Jerusalem. After the departure of the Holy Saint Barnabas, at the commandment of the Lord Christ St Mark came to Afrikia, Berka, and the Five Western Cities.
After he entered the city of Alexandria his sandal broke and he took it to the cobbler, Anianus, to repair it. While he was repairing it he pierced his finger and cried out ‘EIS THEOS – The One God!” So St Mark healed the cobbler miraculously by the power of Christ and Anianus went on to become a Bishop of the Orthodox Church.
There is a historical background to this event that we should consider. The land of Egypt was at this moment prepared to receive the true knowledge of God and the Orthodox faith. The scientific prowess of the ancient Egyptians was immense, considering the engineering and technical skills behind the construction of the pyramids, their mathematics and philosophy came to the forefront of the world and the great library of Alexandria contained the largest collection of scientific and historical record the ancient world had ever known, and much ancient history was lost when it was destroyed. Nevertheless, the scientific knowledge of the ancient pharoh’s was not considered detrimental to religious knowledge but supplementary to it.
“In any case, the fact is that the ancient Egyptians put their scientific abilities at the disposal of the religious thinking (building pyramids, embalming etc). It had influenced the Copts. They looked to science not as an enemy of religion or contrary to it, but rather that science acts in favour of religion. Therefore the school of Alexandria (left) opened its doors to the scholars and philosophers, believing science and philosophy could serve the true spiritual life.” (Fr Tadros Yacoub Malaty “Introduction to The Coptic Orthodox Church”)
In fact, Fr Tadros Yacoub Malaty notes that many of the ancient philosophers believed in one supreme being, the best example being king Ikhnaton (1383-1365BC). Further, the ancient Egyptians had contemplated much on afterlife and the implications of spiritual knowledge and although of human construct the best of their efforts is seen in the example of king Ikhnaton led to the ultimate truth of accepting One God.
What does all this have to do with St Mark? Well, St Mark is well known as an evangelist and author of the Gospel, he is also known as a missionary and also as a martyr. What we often to easily forget is his eminence as a theologian, scholar, and we should consider his holiness and great rhetorical skills as he the Beholder of Divinity related the power of the risen Christ – which he had witnessed firsthand. St Mark entered an eminent scientific and philosophical arena in Alexandria of the worlds finest thinkers, rife with the schools of Greek philosophy and even the theology of the Jews, whose efforts some two hundred years earlier produced the Septuagint which is received as Holy Scripture by the Orthodox Church and confirmed at its councils years later. In fact the learned Jewish philosopher Philo had even dabbled in the allegorical method of study which was to be confirmed by the Lord Christ and the Fathers of the Church. St. Mark was able to confirm and proclaim the truth of the resurrection of Christ, he catechized and established Christian truth and the Lord worked miracles by his blessed apostolic hands. Yet his preaching was able to confirm the wisdom of Christianity and its ability to answer the great philosophical debaters of Alexandria. We should consider that what he bore was not of human construct but rather Divine Revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He bore witness to the Holy Trinity the One Divinity. This revelation and its study is the purest of sciences as the Book of Sirach pronounces in chapter 39. St Mark was well placed to witness to Christ from what he witnessed first hand, from his knowledge of the Law and the prophets and one wonders at the influence of St Peter, St Barnabas and the eminent New Testament theologian St Paul. His teaching and holy example lead to the foundation of the Alexandrian School of Theology to promote the pure science and the fact that while Orthodox Christianity is a faith of discipleship involving mystery and the revelation of God, it is still more than able to interact and even challenge the greatest philosophical questions humans can come up with. This school whose foundation was laid by St Mark (St Jerome) was to go on to uphold and defend Orthodox truth and become the most influential theological force in the exposition of the faith once deliviered and confirming Orthodoxy, with such renowned saints as St Diddymus, St Cyril and St Athanasius. Nonetheless, St Mark’s impact was so great that he angered his opponents to the point that for a time he left the city having ordained ministers and Bishops he travelled to other parts of Africa continuing on in the evangelical spirit.
Upon his final return to Alexandria, St Mark witnessed that the Church founded had grown under the care and patronage of St Anianus and they built a Church at Bokalia (place of the cows) east of Alexandria by the sea shore. In the year 68 AD, St Mark was celebrating the feast of the resurrection which coincided with a pagan festival to Syrabis, and a pagan mob sought the life of St Mark and binding him with thick rope they dragged him with cruelty through the streets cutting and tearing his flesh leaving a trail of blood behind him. Bound, they threw him into prison that night. An angel of the Lord appeared to him and strengthened his resolve ‘O Mark, the good servant, rejoice for your name has been written in the Book of LIfe and you have been counted among the congregation of the saints.’ After this the Lord Christ himself appeared to the holy Saint giving him peace. St Mark rejoiced in his heart.
The next day he was again tortured and dragged through the streets until finally he delivered up his soul into the hands of the Lord. He received the crowns of martyrdom, apostolicism, evangelism, and virginity. The pagans still not satisfied in their hatred sought to burn his Holy Relics and gathered firewood to burn his body, yet on the way to heaven St Mark saw a severe storm and heavy rain dash their wicked desires and the Christians took his holy remains and buried him in the Church at Bokalia. After some centuries and journeys, his relics reside today at the Coptic Orhodox Cathedral in Alexandria (left).
St Mark came to Egypt to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah 19, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of Egypt.’ His holy example lead to the growth of the first Christians who had witnessed his miracles and heard his eyewitness accounts of the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ. He saw many catechized and baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity. He founded the school of theology to combat heresy and promote Orthodox witness. His ascetic example of discipleship and service lead him to forsake his life for the name of Christ to the point of martyrdom, an example for the generations of confessors and martyrs and ascetic anchorite monks whose lives followed his holy example. St Mark came to Egypt full of the Holy Spirit and found the fields ripe for harvest as the ancients had prepared for his arrival and the message of Christ in their learned reflection. He planted the seed of faith amongst the people by his teaching and exposition of the faith once delivered, and he then watered that seed by the blood he shed in his martyrdom, and he showed the power of Christ not only in his life but in the miraculous preservation of his Holy Relics which have blessed many generations up to today. The seed he watered by his blood has become a golden chain of holy saints and martyrs, great theologians and simple holy men, fools for Christ and has under the current guidance of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III become a blessing to all nations.
I wish we could all increase our love, devotion and appreciation of St Mark, to ask his prayers to encourage us to struggle to follow his example as we bear witness to the Resurrected Lord, so that the first Patriarch of Alexandria would reflect the Glory of God onto us from heaven as he did when he walked on earth, may his prayers be with us all Amen.
Syrian Orthodox Icon of St Mark the Evangelist