Lectionary #58, Mark 16: 15-20
The Church celebrates the Ascension today, marking the end of Jesus’ earthly existence and the beginning of the mission of the Church. After his departure we are responsible to continue the work he inaugurated, and to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).
This missionary command is not made only to the apostles themselves but to all of the Lord’s disciples, and it is incumbent upon us as his modern-day followers to answer this charge energetically. Pope Francis warned in Evangelii Gaudium (no. 275) that a lack of deep spirituality can lead to pessimism and a decline in missionary zeal. We must therefore take up the cause of the gospel by forming a deeper personal relation with Jesus, being transformed spiritually by this intimate rapport so that in turn we can help to transform the world around us and inaugurate the Kingdom of God.
The importance of a personal encounter with Jesus is emphasized by St. Luke in the opening words of his gospel as well as in the Acts of the Apostles, which we hear from today. Luke himself certainly believed many things about Jesus and the salvation he won for us, yet he was not satisfied with merely knowing facts about Jesus, he wanted to know Jesus at the level of a personal relationship.
Luke seeks to share this personal engagement with Theophilus as he describes to his friend the impact of Jesus and the “good news” in his own life: we ought to imitate this kind of person-to- person “mission”! Just as Luke so painstakingly assembled the gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles which we hear today, so too every baptized believer in Jesus is called to play some role, whether private or public, lay or clerical, formal or informal, in promoting the good news of Christ in our world. And this must be a personal engagement, like that of Luke and Theophilus, because at the core of Christianity itself is a personal encounter.
At the same time that it is personal every authentic Christian relationship must remain ecclesial. Thus we should carefully note that the “powers” described in today’s gospel, such as casting out evil spirits, speaking in tongues, handling serpents and drinking poison without harm, and healing the sick, are things that are subject to the judgment of the entire Church, just as the very presence of these verses in Mark’s gospel was a collective and implicit judgment of the whole Church, guided by the Holy Spirit.
This simply means that no one should set himself or herself up as a “performer” of such powers and signs without standing in complete union with, and having the authorization of, the Church Catholic. The Church reserves special prayerful rites for the exorcism of evil spirits and to intercede for the renewed health of her sick members; these and the other practices mentioned in the gospel are things with which we must not trifle, for as we know all too well, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”.
There are many people today, even in places long associated with Catholicism, who have effectively become post-Christian not so much on account of a conscious and deliberate choice, but because they have never received the witness of a true disciple who has a living relationship with Jesus. As those who are commanded by the Lord to “Go into the whole…” we ought to be vigilant in deepening our personal relationship with Christ and in practicing the faith we profess, so that all whom we encounter will have a true opportunity to behold in us the “joy of the gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium), and to make a free choice to become a missionary disciple of Christ!
Father Edward M. Mazich, O.S.B.