Accompanying signs

When was the last time you drove out a demon? Or handled snakes? Or drank deadly poison? If you are like most followers of Jesus Christ, it has probably been a while. And yet Our Lord seems to prescribe such activities for His followers: "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" (Mk 16:17-18).

Of course, Jesus does not in fact require performing such signs for discipleship. Were that the case, we would have to chase down demons to exorcise, poisons to drink and snakes to handle. So why does He mention them at all? Because the extraordinary always highlights the ordinary. These extraordinary signs reveal something ordinary about "those who believe" in His name - that is, about the church. So rather than getting hung up on whether to become snake-handlers, we should consider what these extraordinary signs teach about the church.

First, the church liberates. To drive out demons is to free a person from the greatest slavery. And, yes, some of Christ's followers do this literally by the rite of exorcism. But more importantly, the church drives out the demons of doubt and despair by simply proclaiming the Gospel. The devil is the "father of lies" (Jn 8:44). He and his minions traffic in cunning and deceit. The proclamation of the Gospel dispels those lies and, in effect, drives out demons. Thus, as often as we bear witness to the Gospel, we assist in routing the demonic forces.

The church's mission of liberation prompts it to speak new languages. It is always seeking how to proclaim the Gospel in a manner fit and accessible to people of different times, cultures and places. The church always adopts whatever means are compatible with the Gospel truth in order to speak in a way it can be heard. So also we should seek "new languages" - new ways of speaking so that those around us can truly hear and receive the Gospel.

Second, the church heals. "They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover" (Mk 16:18). No, not every disciple of Christ has the charism of healing. But the church itself has it as essential aspect of its mission. The proclamation of the Gospel heals people of that great spiritual sickness - ignorance and error. It is a balm to the soul simply to hear of the one true God who has come in search of us.

Third, the church endures. There is a certain immunity that the church has to infection. Not that it is not beset by difficulties or subject to assaults. Not that some within it have not been poisoned or bitten. But the church herself, as the virgin bride of Christ, keeps the faith untarnished. The church can, in effect, handle the dangerous things of the world without itself being destroyed. It can breathe in the toxic air of the culture without itself becoming corrupted. It can unhesitatingly "go into the whole world" because its ultimate safety is guaranteed.

But the most important aspect about these "signs (that) accompany those who believe " is that they are not produced by the believers at all. It is the Lord - ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father - who "(confirms) the word through accompanying signs" (Mk 16:20). It is, in the end, not the church but Christ Himself who liberates, heals and not only endures but triumphs through it.

Fr. Scalia is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's delegate for clergy.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015