Saint Mark is considered to be the founder of the Coptic Orthodox Church. He is one of the Seventy Apostles appointed by our Lord (Mark 10:10), and one of the four Evangelists. He is regarded as the first of the unbroken chain of 117 patriarchs of the Coptic Church, and the first of a stream of Egyptian martyrs.
St. Mark was of Jewish descent, belonging to the tribe of Levi. He was born in Pentapolis (translated, the Five Western Cities) on the Northern coast of Africa, west of Egypt. His family lived in Cyrenica until they were attacked by barbarians at which time they moved to Jerusalem with their son, John Mark, John being Hebrew and Mark Roman. Evidently, he received a good education and, Hebrew being his native language, became fluent in both Greek and Latin. It is believed that St. Mark’s cousin was St. Barnabas, and his father’s cousin was St. Peter.
While St. Mark was traveling in Jordan with his atheist father, Arostalis, a lion and lioness appeared. His father begged St. Mark to escape at the cost of his own life, but St. Mark assured his father that Jesus Christ would save them both and began to pray. Suddenly, the two animals fell dead. As a result of that miracle, the father believed in Christ. For this reason, St. Mark is often portrayed with a lion.
St. Mark is mentioned in the Scriptures as having been present with the Lord on a number of occasions. It follows St. Mark’s reputation of being a humble man that he refrained from mentioning his own name in his Gospel, however, it is documented in the history of the church (Acts 12:11,12). He is the man who was carrying the jar when the two disciples went to prepare a place for the celebration of the Passover (Mark 14:13, Luke 22:11). It was in the upper room of the house of his mother, Mary, that the Last Supper was held, thus becoming the first church in the world where Christ Himself instituted the Holy Eucharist. “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to His disciples, and said, ‘take, eat, this is My body.’ And He took the cup and gave thanks and gave it to them saying, ‘drink, you all, of it. For this is My blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” (Matt. 26:26-28) and, “And He took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it, and gave it to them saying, ‘this is My body which is given for you: do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19). If we look at St. Mark’s Liturgy, also called St. Cyril’s, we find the same exact words as above, and the arrangement of the Liturgy: Thanks, Sanctification, Fraction, Communion, exactly as seen by St. Mark the Thursday before the Crucifixion. There also, the Lord appeared to His disciples after His resurrection and there, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit occurred the day of the Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). Consequently, the church calls St. Mark, “Theorimos” or “Beholder of the Lord.”
St. Mark served in Jerusalem and Judea, Antioch, Cyprus, Asia Minor, Colossy, Rome and Venice. His major service, proclaiming the Message of Salvation to North Africa (Libya and Egypt), was done by himself. Egypt at the time was under Roman rule, the inhabitants there in addition to the Roman governing class, being Egyptians, Greeks, Jews. The first city St. Mark entered in Egypt was Alexandria, the intellectual capital of its time. Upon arrival, the strap of St. Mark’s sandal was broken so he went to a cobbler named Ananias. Accidentally, the awl pierced Ananias’ hand to which he cried out to the surprise of St. Mark, “Oh, One God.” After healing him, St. Mark preached to Ananias and his family and all were baptized. Ananias’ house became the first church in Alexandria and later in 44AD, St. Mark ordained him as the first bishop. In 49 AD the Evangelist accompanied St. Peter to Rome and there began writing his Gospel, which he completed in Egypt. Following the martyrdom of St. Peter, St. Mark returned to Egypt and built the first church on the Alexandrian coast where his church remains until this day.
St. Mark baptized a great number of converts between the years 56 and 60 AD and through the work of the Holy Spirit, he established the Theological School of Alexandria where study was based on the question-and-answer method. In addition to theology, the school offered courses in medicine, engineering, music, classical studies, literature and the sciences. The 20th Coptic Patriarch, St. Athanasius, who formulated the Athanasian Creed, also known as the Orthodox Creed, is among its graduates.
The work of St. Mark in Egypt and his attacks on the local pagan gods were so successful as to arouse the hatred and vengeance of the pagan Egyptians against him. As a result of St. Mark’s denunciation of the forthcoming festival in honor of Serapis as being idolatrous and impious, St. Mark was dragged through the city of Alexandria by a rope tied around his neck. He was dragged out of the Church of Baucalis after he had prayed the Easter Mass of 68AD. After dragging his severely wounded body, the pagans put him in jail where he had visions. He saw an Angel who said, “Now your hour has come, Mark the good servant of Jesus Christ. Have courage because your name has been written in the Book of Life.” He also saw our Lord Jesus Christ, Himself, who said, “Peace be to you, Mark, my disciple and evangelist.” The following day the pagans dragged him around the city once again until his head was separated from his body and he was martyred on May 8, 68 AD. The pagans made a fire, intending to burn St. Mark’s body, but heavy rains would not allow it. The believers took his body to the Church of Baucalis and buried it there. For centuries the election of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Egypt took place by the side of his tomb. In 877 AD, however, Venetians stole his body out of their own deep veneration for the Great Saint whom they also considered their Patron Saint.
Recently in 1968, on the occasion of the passion of 1900 years since St. Mark’s martyrdom, Pope Paul VI of the Catholic Church of Rome gave some of his relics to the Late Pope Cyril VI of our church. Upon its arrival at the Cairo International Airport, heavenly luminous bodies in the form of doves filled the sky surrounding the body of the Great Saint. His holy relics are now in the new Cathedral named after St. Mark in Cairo.
The Apostolicity of the Coptic Orthodox Church is maintained therefore by St. Mark, the Evangelist, the Beholder of the Divine. May his blessings be with us, Amen.