There is a tiny little tradition, mostly ignored or unnoticed. But this year it packed a significant punch. It has to do with the announcement of the Gospel reading.
There is a tradition that the Gospel is announced with the words “The continuation of the Holy Gospel according to St ____ the ____ chapter.” It is a small way of making clear that we don’t take these out of context. Instead, there is something that came before in the Gospel, and something that comes after. The themes move slowly through the entire corpus of Christian doctrine over the year. One week is tied to the next. And, feel free to go home after the service and read the broader context. It’s a small thing. Very small. And the next part is even smaller. Except when it is everything.
For Christmas the announcement is “The Beginning of the Holy Gospel according to Saint John the first chapter.” Makes sense. The reading is the opening words of John’s Gospel. All well and good. And it matches with the theme of Christmas: A new beginning. The Gospel itself starts with “In the beginning…” Cute.
The other time it is different is Ascension Day. “The conclusion of the Gospel according to Saint Mark, the 16th chapter.” Nothing really earthshaking about that. Unless someone has been going around claiming that the end of Mark’s Gospel which records both the ascension and the institution of Baptism is not authentic, whatever that means. Now, this little tradition becomes a point of confession. Because the Gospel of Mark concludes with these words – a few of which we teach children in the Small Catechism. This is not optional. You don’t get to pick and choose which parts of scripture you’re going to ignore because of various manuscript oddities. We confess the canonical books of scripture in the Old and New Testaments, and that includes the conclusion of Saint Mark’s Gospel.
The battle for the bible made clear that Higher Critics don’t get to excise this or that bit because they don’t think it is authentic. Today, the so-called Lower Critics (the ones we all learned were the “good critics”) don’t get to do that either. They do NOT get to decide which parts of scripture are authentic enough for inclusion in the canon. The church has already figured it out. Mark’s Gospel CONCLUDES with the words of the Ascension Day Gospel. We teach our children that “Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Mark…” Now, we’re facing the same problem: if it’s not authentic, then maybe Jesus didn’t say it. But we don’t get to decide what he said. The Scriptures exist to tell us exactly what he said.
And if the critics of yesterday or today want to argue, they can step outside and argue in the parking lot. Because by definition, those who say “I don’t think Jesus really said this thing which the church has confessed for 2000 years,” are no longer arguing in the church. They have stepped outside of the church. And no matter how alluring their voice, or how many follow them, outside of Christ’s Holy Bride the Church is where the argument stays.