by Father Mike Stubbs
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Which comes first, faith or the facts?
Do we first believe, and then use our belief to help us to understand the facts of our existence? Or do we first examine the facts, and then base our beliefs upon them?
In a scientific age, we might choose the second option. Isn’t that the scientific method, to perform the experiment and then draw your conclusions from it? On the other hand, even that approach first requires a belief — belief in the scientific method.
We begin with faith, and that faith helps us to understand the facts. Fides quaerens intellectum: (“Faith seeking understanding”). That is how St. Anselm of Canterbury summed it up in the 11th century. And that aphorism applies well to this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mk 16:15-20.
That passage was chosen since it includes Jesus’ ascension into heaven, which we celebrate as a feast this Sunday: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven.” At the same time, the passage consists largely of an instruction that Jesus gives the disciples before leaving them. That instruction emphasizes the importance of faith: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
Throughout the Gospel of Mark, we can find an emphasis upon faith. Jesus is constantly criticizing the disciples for their lack of it.
It is appropriate that, at the conclusion of this Gospel, that emphasis appears once again. That emphasis is strengthened even more if we look at the few verses (9-14) preceding our reading.
In that prequel to our reading, Mary Magdalene informed the disciples that Jesus was risen from the dead, but they did not believe her. Next, the two disciples who saw Jesus walking on the road, presumably the two whom the Gospel of Luke (24:13-35) describes on their way to Emmaus, also informed the disciples that Jesus was risen from the dead, but they did not believe them.
Consistent with their earlier behavior in Mark’s Gospel, the disciples fail to believe. That is why Jesus “appeared to them and rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart because they had not believed those who saw him after he had been raised.” The disciples’ unbelief provides the context for Jesus’ emphasis upon belief in Sunday’s Gospel reading: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”
Jesus goes on to describe the miracles that will identify the believers: “These signs will accompany those who believe.” They will drive out demons, speak new languages. They will be protected from deadly snakes and poisons. They will cure the sick.
It is important to point out that, in this case, the belief comes first, and then the signs. It would have been easier for the disciples to witness the miracles first, and then base their faith on those signs. But that is not the sequence that Jesus indicates to them.
So then, who are the signs meant for?
Those miracles are intended for the people that the disciples will preach to. The signs will witness to the validity of their message Jesus is indeed risen and working within the disciples.