Solemnity of the Ascension – May 17, 2015

I’ve been watching the HBO Series “Rome” on Amazon’s video streaming service. The series’ narrative begins in 52 B.C., with Julius Caesar plotting to return from Gaul to Rome as a conquering hero rather than the criminal he was judged to be by the Roman Senate. The story line of the political intrigue of ancient Rome is interesting, but more interesting still is the ancillary information given in the video series.

Of particular interest to me are some of the cultural practices of ancient Rome, cultural practices that seem strange and foreign today. One scene in the series depicted an ancient Roman dinner party. Musicians played while the guests and hosts danced; the dance looked like something from an episode of “Star Trek.” I found interesting as well the many religious rituals performed by the characters in the stories. In the first few episodes there have been offerings of blood, live animals, incense and various farm products. Religion in the Twenty-First century seems very tame by comparison.

In today’s Gospel reading we have an example of the vast differences between our religious sensibilities and those of our ancestors in the Faith. Jesus commissioned his disciples to preach the Good News to the whole world. (Mark 16:15) He promised salvation through Baptism (Mark 16:16), and said, “These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:17-18)

To our contemporary sensibilities, actions such as speaking in tongues and snake-handling are most often associated with rural Pentecostal religion; they’re not the sort of thing one would expect to find in a Catholic Church. It might be helpful to keep in mind that we are, in fact, dealing with nothing more than arbitrary cultural differences.

At the time, and in the place, that this longer ending of Mark’s Gospel was composed, ecstatic experiences, faith healing, speaking in tongues, and the like, were considered normal, commonplace religious activities. The ancient world was very different from our own. The normalcy of these practices in the ancient world was as culturally conditioned (and therefore, arbitrary), as the uncommonness of these practices today. Rather than focus on culturally conditioned phenomena, it might be more worth our effort to focus on their underlying meaning.

The practices mentioned in the Gospel, driving out demons, speaking new languages, handling serpents and laying hands on the sick (Mark 16:17-18), were some of the widely accepted evidences of valid religious experience in the ancient world. There is no need for us to reproduce, or reenact, these ancient practices, but there is a need for us to produce the sorts of evidence that our culture would associate with real faith.

What does our culture associate with valid religious practice or authentic faith in God? If we listen to those who criticize Christianity for its failings we have a brief catalog of expectations based on Christianity’s public statements about itself. Christian institutions, and individual believers, are often criticized for not being as compassionate as was our founder, Jesus of Nazareth. Often, we fail to live together harmoniously, as Jesus commanded. We are criticized, as well, for not practicing the Gospel injunction to forgive our enemies and persecutors. We are rightly accused of being much more materialistic, and much less generous, than the Lord taught his disciples to be. We are also often as self-righteous and self-absorbed as were the religious leaders who put Jesus to death.

These few common criticisms, based on Gospel teachings, are sufficient to form a rough outline of an authentic faith and a valid religious practice in the Twenty-First century. The commonly accepted evidences of faith in Jesus, for us today, are: to live in communion with fellow believers, to forgive our persecutors, to treat the poor with dignity and compassion, to live humbly and to love God as God deserves to be loved.

The kinds of evidence of authentic faith in Jesus as Savior have changed over the centuries, but the obligation to produce such evidence has not changed. If we have truly put our faith in the Gospel preached to us, then there should be evidence of that Faith in our lives. It is not necessary for us to risk our health by handling venomous snakes; nor ought we to feel inadequate because we haven’t cast out any demons recently. Rather, we need to practice the compassion, forgiveness and fidelity that Jesus did, and do so publicly.

G. K. Chesterton is credited with having said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking that it will be an easy task to be faithful to the Lord’s teaching. Let’s neither be tempted to give up in the face of the difficulty of discipleship. Each of us came to the Faith because of the example of another believer. We are the beneficiaries of a previous generation of faithful Catholics who lived the Lord’s commands, and gave witness to the Resurrection. We owe the same debt of faith and witness to future generations of believers.

The Lord’s command, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15), can’t be merely an aspiration or a future plan. If we wish to call ourselves Catholics, it must be our daily occupation and our way of life.

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