There are four evangelists in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We call their books gospels: The Gospel according to Matthew, The Gospel according to Mark, The Gospel according to Luke, and the Gospel according to John. I do not know if you have noticed that Mark was the only one among the four who referred to his work as gospel. John began by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Luke said, “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us … I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you…” (Luke 1:1-3). Matthew started by presenting the genealogy of Jesus (Cf. Matthew 1:1-17). Mark is the only one who started his work by giving us the title, which he identified as “Gospel.” He said, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).
Why was it so important for Mark to begin by specifically identifying his work as gospel? When Mark was writing, the word gospel was already in use in the Roman Empire. At that time, in the Roman Empire, the word was not in reference to a book but to a message or announcement. At that time, the word gospel or good news described the announcement of victory in battle or the announcement of the birth of a child. It was common to refer to such announcements as gospel or good news because such events opened the door to hope. Such announcements heralded hope for peace, hope for well-being, and hope for a great future. It was in that context that Mark wrote his work. He called it the gospel to tell the Christians that whatever the Roman Empire had described as gospel was not the real gospel. For him, the real gospel is about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In the past, the victory of the Roman Army brought hope to the people but, whatever it promised was not everlasting. The birth of a child heralded a bright future and greatness ahead, but it was ephemeral. The hope that brings about well-being beyond this world is the hope connected to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Today’s gospel passage presents the first words of Jesus in the Gospel according to Mark. Jesus came to Galilee, and said, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). With this announcement, Jesus was making it clear that his arrival was inaugurating the Kingdom of God. He did not impose the kingdom on anyone. It was open to all. But to be part of this kingdom, one must fulfill two criteria: repent and believe in the gospel.
Today’s first reading presents an example of what it means to repent. The people of Nineveh had their own way of life. But after hearing the preaching of Jonah, they turned away from their sinful lives and did penance. We may want to ask: from what do we need to repent? God gave us the gift of conscience, which tells us whether our thoughts, words, and actions are right or not. If you find yourself struggling so hard to justify what you are doing, check very well, there might be something wrong with what you are doing. But when you are doing the right thing, you will experience a kind of peace, joy, and good feeling that you will not need anyone to convince you that you are right.
The second of the two criteria is “believe in the gospel.” Trust that the life Jesus introduces to us is better than whatever we were holding on to for security. The apostles set good examples for us. They had their trade before they met Jesus. As soon as they met Jesus, they believed in him, they left everything and followed him. This response of the disciples to Jesus is the kind of response Jesus expects of us. Jesus brings us the good news, the gospel, which has the transformative power to bring us hope. The hope for the joy, peace, and happiness that the world can neither give us nor take away from us. My dearly beloved in Christ, as we are still finding our way through the beginning of this New Year, may God grant us the grace to turn a new leaf, to turn away from things contrary to the kingdom of God, and to believe in the gospel. May our belief in the gospel bring us abundant joy in this life and the life to come through Christ our Lord. Amen.