Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Feast of Ascension (13 May 2018)

Gospel for the Feast of Ascension (13 May 2018)

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it. (Mark 16:15-20 – NRSV)

Introductory notes


“Since none of the autograph copies of documents of the NT survives, the Greek text of the NT is constructed from later copies of manuscripts dating from A.D. 135 at the earliest to about A.D. 1200 at the latest. These copies, of which more than five thousand exist, range in size from scraps little larger than postage stamps to complete manuscripts of the Bible. In general, these copies show remarkable agreement among themselves. The most notorious exception to this otherwise happy rule, however, is the ending of Mark, which presents the gravest textual problem in the NT. The two oldest and most important manuscripts of the Bible, codex Vaticanus (B) and codex Sinaiticus (א), omit 16:9–20, as do several early translations or versions, including the Old Latin, the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, and the two oldest Georgian manuscripts. Neither Clement of Alexandria nor Origen shows any awareness of the existence of the longer ending, and Eusebius and Jerome attest that vv. 9–20 were absent from the majority of Greek copies of Mark known to them. An ingenious system of cross-referencing parallel passages in the Gospels that was devised by Ammonius in the second century and adopted by Eusebius in the fourth century (hence the name Eusebian Canons) does not include Mark 16:9–20. The apocryphal Gospel of Peter does not contain the longer ending, and concludes, as does Mark 16:8, with the fear of the women. Although a majority of ancient witnesses, including Greek uncial and minuscule manuscripts, church fathers, and versions in other languages do include vv. 9–20, this does not compensate for the textual evidence against them. The inclusion of vv. 9–20 in many manuscripts is accounted for rather by the fact that the longer ending, which must have been added quite early, was naturally included in subsequent copies of the Gospel. Many of the ancient manuscripts that do contain the longer ending, however, indicate by scribal notes or various markings that the ending is regarded as a spurious addition to the Gospel. External evidence (manuscript witnesses) thus argues strongly against the originality of the longer ending.” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 497-498.)

In summary: “‘The earliest ascertainable form of the Gospel of Mark ended with 16:8’.” Bruce Metzger cited in J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press. 2002, 462-464.)


Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation”: This is very similar to Matthew 28:16-20 and Luke 24:46–48. It is also similar to the third last verse of Acts: “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (Acts 28:28). St Paul, writing to the Colossians rejoices that he has seen this universal proclamation fulfilled: “the gospel that you heard …. has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (Colossians 1:23). Everyone is to hear the Good News of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus! There is some irony about this in Marks Gospel. There the command comes immediately after Mary of Magdala and the two who had encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus announced the Good News to the disciples and they refused to believe. And immediately before the command is given we read: “He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.” Then the command to go out and announce the message ……

The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned: This statement probably reflects a summary of beliefs and expectations of the early proclaimers. Clearly, it cannot mean that physical baptism is necessary for salvation. That would fly in the face of everything else we read in the Christian Scriptures. It may reflect what some actually believed at that time however.

these signs: Probably a gathering of reported “signs”. The “casting our of demons” is found in Mark 6:7 and a number of other places – for example, Matthew 10:1, 8; Luke 10:17; Acts 8:7; 16:18; 19:6. “Speaking in tongues” is also found in 1 Corinthians 12:10, 30; 14:2, 18. In Acts 28:3–6 St Paul is said to have survived a snakebite. Interestingly enough there are two words for snake – ophis and echidna. The first is a generic term and it is used, for example, in Genesis 3:1, the second is used to refer to a poisonous snake, as in Acts 28:3-6. Here in Mark’s Gospel it is the generic ophis that is used. In Luke 10:19 we also find a reference to surviving snakebite. Again, the Greek word is ophis. “Healing”, particularly by the laying on of hands, is found in Mark 6:13 and Matthew 9:18, Acts 3:1–7, 14:8–10 and James 5:14. The reference to “drinking poisons” is a little more difficult to explain. One scholar writes: “With regard to drinking “deadly poison,” there is no account of drinking poison with immunity in the NT, although Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.9) speaks of Justus Barsabas (the disciple not chosen in Acts 1:23), who drank poison without harm. It appears, however, that in the late first century a cult related to poisonous drugs was exerting at least some influence in Jewish-Christian circles. This is made apparent by a reference in Josephus’s Antiquities, which he completed in A.D. 93–94, that “no one should possess magic potions (Gk. pharmakoi) or poison (Gk. thanasimos) nor any of the harmful things made by Israelites for harmful purposes” (Ant. 4.279). Josephus is ostensibly commenting on Exod 22:18 (which makes no mention of “poison” [Gk. thanasimos ]). The addition of the term, however, suggests that it was a concern in Josephus’s day at the close of the first century. Writing about the same time or shortly later, Ignatius warns the Trallians to refrain from foods that heretics foist on the gullible, mixed like deadly poisons (Gk. thanasimos) with honeyed wine, which the ignorant drink blissfully to their death (Ign. Trall. 6). The text of the passage is partially corrupted, and it is not entirely clear whether Ignatius intends the poisonous drink to be taken literally or symbolically of the unnamed heresy. But even a symbolic meaning indicates that the practice of poisonous drink was known to his readers. Mark’s word for poisonous drink in v. 18 is the same Greek word (thanasimos) used by Josephus and Ignatius. The reference to drinking deadly poison without harm thus signals to Mark’s readers that those who believe and follow the gospel are guaranteed immunity from heresy, including heretical potions to drink.” (J R Edwards, op cit, 506–507)


Today’s Gospel – Mark 16:15-20 – sets a global vision for the Church: “Go out to all the world!” It is a matter of some urgency today that we recover the truth of this global vision.

The Greek word, katholikē, means “universal” or “world-wide”. It was first used of the Church by St Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, in about 110. He was being taken as a prisoner to Rome to be executed. On his way he wrote a letter to the Church in Smyrna in which he observes: “Wherever Jesus Christ is present, we have the world-wide (katholikē) Church (ekklēsia).” (“Letter of St Ignatius of Antioch to the Church in Smyrna,” par 8, in Maxwell Staniforth, translator, Early Christian Writings, Penguin, 1968/1975, 121.)

By the end of the second century, the word “Catholic” was already in use as a proper name for the Church. Thus St Ireneus of Lyons (130-202) writes against the Gnostic heretics in about 180: “The Catholic Church possesses one and the same faith throughout the whole world, as we have already said.” (St Ireneus of Lyons, Against the Heresies, 1, 10, 3)

The essential meaning of the word “catholic” – as implied by St Ignatius – has been more or less overtaken since then by its application to the historical-social reality of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholicity is not simply a geographical or historical or social or organizational concept. The catholicity of the Church is ultimately derived from the presence of Jesus Christ. It is thus a profoundly biblical concept. Thinkers from the various Christian traditions are beginning to explore this more thoroughly today.

Fr Avery Dulles SJ writes: “In the past few decades prominent theologians of practically all the major Christian traditions have been speaking of catholicity as an essential characteristic of the Church. Hardly any seem to reject the aphorism of Karl Barth: ‘A Church is catholic or else it is not the Church’.” (Avery Dulles, The Catholicity of the Church, Clarendon Press, 1985, 2.) Dulles goes on to cite supporting references from the Orthodox, Lutheran and Evangelical traditions. There is no room for sectarianism in a truly biblical understanding of the Church. The Church must be truly catholic!

In Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, we read: “All peoples are called to belong to the new People of God. Wherefore this people, while remaining one and only one, is to be spread throughout the whole world and must exist in all ages, so that the decree of God’s will may be fulfilled. …. It was for this purpose that God sent his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things (cf. Heb 1:2), that he might be teacher, king and priest of all, the head of the new and universal people of the children of God. ….. He it is who brings together the whole Church and each and every one of those who believe, and who is the wellspring of their unity in the teaching of the apostles and in fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers (cf. Acts 2:42)” (#13). The truth of God’s Church is not found in “them joining us” but in all of us becoming one in Him.