On April 25 each year, we celebrate the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist. St. Mark is traditionally held to be a co-worker and companion of Peter and Paul, as well as cousin to Barnabas. He accompanied Peter on his preaching travels, writing down the sermons and parables that eventually became his Gospel. He was martyred around 68, in the city of Alexandria. His gospel is the shortest of the four, even though it was composed first.
But long before Mark journeyed around, spreading the Good News, his work was foretold. In the Book of Ezekiel, that prophet records a vision of “four living creatures… Each of the four had a human face, and on the right a face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox, and each had the face of an eagle…And the appearance of the living creatures seemed like burning coals of fire.” (Ez 1:5, 10, 14) These four creatures are usually understood as symbols of the four evangelists: the winged man, or angel, is associated with Matthew, the eagle symbolizes John, the ox is for Luke and the lion represents Mark.
These same four creatures will appear again in the book of Revelation, which says, “In the center and around the throne, there were four living creatures covered with eyes in front and in back. The first creature resembled a lion, the second was like a calf, the third had a face like that of a human being and the fourth looked like an eagle in flight.” (Rev 4:6-7)
On the Feast of St. Mark, let’s reflect a little on why the lion is a symbol for him. There are a few reasons.
First of all, the Gospel of Mark opens differently than the other gospels. There is no philosophy or infancy narrative. It gets right to the point by proclaiming straight away, through the voice of John the Baptist, the imminent arrival of the Messiah. John the Baptist is presented as a mighty voice, like a lion roaring in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight his paths!” (Mk 1:3) The time is now. A response is urgently required, just as if we were to meet a wild lion in the flesh.
The second reason for the lion symbolism comes from the Old Testament, specifically the title the “lion of Judah.” In the book of Genesis, Jacob gives his blessing to his son, Judah, and calls him a young lion, crouching down, and proclaims that not only will the “scepter never depart from Judah,” (Gen 49:10) but that tribute and the people’s obedience will also come to him. This prophetic poem is a foreshadowing of the Messiah that Mark proclaims, Jesus, the true Lion of Judah who will be victorious over all his enemies and will be given tribute and obedience.
The gospel of Mark itself resembles an energetic lion, in that it races from event to event, hardly slowing down. It has a vivid style, energetically detailing the events of Jesus’ life, as the kingdom of God breaks into the lives of humans. Ultimately, this gospel focuses on Jesus’ steady march to the cross.
In fact, the Gospel of Mark has sometimes been called a passion narrative with a long introduction. Mark introduces Jesus as the son of God from the beginning. There is no doubt that this is the Messiah, the strong, kingly, divine Son of God who will fulfill all of the Messianic prophecies. In Mark’s Gospel we see “the paradox of the Messiah who enters into his glorious reign only through the self-abasement of the cross.” *
Perhaps C.S. Lewis conveyed something about the symbolism of the lion as well, in his Narnia books. He frequently described Aslan, the Lion king, as a good lion, just not a tame one. In describing the risen Aslan, he wrote “People … sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face, they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly.”**
Lions are strong, majestic, powerful, noble and fierce. There is simply something in their nature that commands respect and loyalty.
The winged lion has also been a symbol for many centuries of the city of Venice, due to a claim that St. Mark stopped there once and beheld an angel in the shape of a lion. Back in the U.S. there are four well-known lions that guard the city of St. Augustine, Florida, which claims to be the first place the Mass was said in the U.S. The four lions, Fiel and Firme (Faithful and Firm) and Pax and Peli (Peace and Happiness) are on either end of the Bridge of Lions. These imposing stone statues stand in front of a sign that reminds all visitors the “Lions are under video recording.” Just in case they may suddenly come to life, jump off those stone pedestals and into our lives in a very real way - in much the same way, in fact, that the Gospel of Mark tries to show us the Son of God jumps into the sad story of humanity, invigorating it, energizing it, and finally redeeming it.
*by Mary Healy, in the April 2023 Magnificat, p. 281
** from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe