Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ordinary and Extraordinary Signs “That Will Accompany Those Who Believe”

(Ascension Thursday 2009: This homily was given on May 21, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 16: 15-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ascension 2009]

It’s a pretty impressive list, isn’t it?

I’m talking about the one Jesus gives us in today’s gospel: this list of signs “that will accompany those who believe.”

  • Driving out demons
  • Speaking new languages
  • Picking up serpents (he doesn’t mean garter snakes either!)
  • Drinking deadly poison
  • Healing the sick through the laying on of hands

I’ve done a few of those things, and so have many other Christians in the 2.000 year history of the Church. They are extraordinary signs of the continuing presence of Jesus Christ in our world. They remind us that, even though our Lord ascended into heaven on the first Ascension Thursday in 33 A.D., in a certain sense he never left the earth. His presence continues among us in the sacraments, in the Sacred Scriptures, and in extraordinary signs like these that are mentioned in Mark 16.

But it would be wrong for us to confine the presence of Jesus only to the Bible, the sacraments, and incredible events like healing the sick and picking up deadly snakes. The fact is, there are many other signs of Jesus’ presence in our world today that are just as noteworthy, although much more “ordinary”.

Here’s a partial list of those signs, which also “accompany those who believe”:

  • Walking away from a really big temptation by relying on your faith in Jesus. (That can be every bit as impressive as driving out a demon or healing the sick, if the temptation is severe.)
  • Forgiving someone who has hurt you deeply, even though the other person doesn’t repent and never says they’re sorry. (It takes a special divine grace to do something like that.)
  • Holding your tongue when you’d really like to tell someone off, but know you shouldn’t. “Dear Jesus, help me not to say what I feel like saying right now!”
  • Speaking up when you know you should (for example, to correct an injustice at work), even though you’d much rather be quiet and say nothing. “Dear Jesus, give me courage—and the right words.”
  • Being kind and respectful to someone who is continually unkind to you and has no intention of changing. (It takes a special internal power to do that.)
  • Persevering in fulfilling your family responsibilities by tapping into God’s power through prayer, when deep down inside you feel like giving up. (That perseverance is a sign to others and to the world that Jesus Christ is present with you and within you.)

All these things I just mentioned are relatively “ordinary,” compared to driving out demons, drinking deadly poison, and healing the sick; and yet, they’re just as important as those other “extraordinary signs” of the Lord’s presence. In fact, in a certain sense they’re even more important—because they involve situations that we encounter almost every day. Let’s face it, in all likelihood we will not encounter a possessed person this week who needs an exorcism; but all of us will probably be tempted to tell someone off or hold a grudge or be unkind to a person who is unkind to us.

It’s in moments like these that we have the opportunity to witness to the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives by how we respond.

Speaking of such situations, when I was the process of writing this homily, the phone next to my desk in the rectory rang. It was a woman from the parish calling from Westerly Hospital. Her niece’s 1-year-old daughter had just drowned while taking a bath. The woman and her family were incredibly distraught, as you might imagine. But they were also clinging to their faith—and it showed! Their ability to deal with this horrible tragedy with at least some composure, was a sign to me (and I’m sure to many others) of the presence of Jesus Christ in them.

So today let us thank God for all the “signs that accompany those who believe”: the extraordinary ones that Jesus mentions here in this gospel text from Mark 16, but also the ordinary ones that are made manifest in the everyday—and sometimes tragic—circumstances of this life.

They are signs that Jesus Christ is with us and will always be with us—until the end of the world.