The basic hagiography of Francis Xavier goes something like this:
Born in 1506 in the Navarre region of France, Francis met Ignatius of Loyola as a young man, and was greatly influenced by his friendship. Together, with others, they formed the Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits. When the King of Portugal wanted to send missionaries to territories in India and beyond, it was Francis who went to Goa and converted many to Christianity. Over the next decade or so, he consolidated his missions in Goa and travelled as far East as Japan. He died on an island south of China, waiting at the gates of that mysterious country to try his mission there. A Jesuit biographer writes,
“Francis loved and was loved by all ranks of society, European and Asian. He was equally at home with sailors, soldiers, merchants, simple people, and sophisticated intellectuals. He could begin the conversation at their level and take it up to God’s … Francis had a genuine love for everyone he met and he urged his fellow missionaries to have the same.”
He could begin the conversation at any level and take it up to God’s. Now there is a gift for speaking new tongues.
But there is another side to the story. At this moment, in the city of Goa, Francis’ remains are on display in the cathedral church, inviting pilgrims to come, see, and pray. A message on the webpage for the exposition from the Archbishop of Goa and Daman prays,
“that this Solemn Exposition of the Relics of our Saint – and the massive spiritual preparation the Church in Goa is engaged in — may be an occasion for us to renew our faith-commitment and to live it out amidst the manifold challenges of our times. May it also bring the priceless gift of JESUS to many people who are sincerely searching for the real meaning and purpose of their lives.”
But others are protesting the exposition, arguing that the display is an affront to Goa’s independence from Portugal, and that it celebrates a man who committed atrocities, torture, and even mass murder in the name of Holy Inquisition.
Must we swallow the poison of religious imperialism and inquisition in order to celebrate the missionary zeal and spiritual legacy of the co-founder of the Jesuit movement?
“They will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them.”
It must have been three or four Decembers ago that I got up one morning to find a three-page, closely-argued treatise on why my eldest daughter should be permitted a pet snake. That, friends, is how we came to adopt a third cat. Maybe I simply don’t have enough faith to handle serpents; but I’m trying.
This piece appended to the end of Mark’s gospel doesn’t get read much, partly because most people believe it to be an appendix to the original, and we’re not that sure what to do with it. It gets read today presumably because of the instruction to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation,” which fits nicely with the commemoration of a missionary; but there are other verses that would do for that. So we tend to find ourselves hypnotized, transfixed instead by the snakes.
“These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents; if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
I read Salvation on Sand Mountain, by Dennis Covington, after I read this evening’s gospel. He describes the faith of many whom we would consider on the outskirts of, well, sane Christianity: the snake handlers. He describes, actually, churches filled with the same faith and fear and conflict and trouble and resolution and hope that we find anywhere, that we find here. About halfway through, he begins to spell out what should be obvious:
“There are snakes, and there are snakes. Some are literal, some not. While I was handling common water snakes in a sewer at the end of our street in East Lake, people were taking up rattlesnakes in a church a few blocks away. We didn’t know them. They didn’t know us. We might as well have occupied parallel universes, except for one thing: we had come from the same place. We were border dwellers. We had sailed for the promised land. We had entered the mountains and come down from them again. We were the same people. And all of us were handling one kind of snake or another.
The literal snakes are the easiest to identify: my water snakes, their rattlesnakes. The metaphorical snakes are another matter. When I was growing up in East Lake, among families reaching for the middle class, the past was problematic and embarrassing because it contained poverty, ignorance, racism, and defeat. This legacy of Southern history was as dangerous as any rattlesnake.” (Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (De Capo Press, 1995), 151)
Covington states the obvious, that there is evil and inequality, that there are malign ideas and cruel deeds that slide around, between us, hooking around our knees, strangling our throats, squeezing out our God-given breath; and we who read this gospel tend to get distracted by the spectacle of the rattlers, while the serpent, that old devil, and its poison are slithering and seeping into the water that we drink.
The legacy of Francis Xavier courses through the centuries. Its currents of education, of spiritual awakening, of service to the gospel, even of love run deep. But there are other currents that run as deep: imperialism, inequality, the inhumanity of treating others as less than ourselves, even when we think it’s for their own good.
Today was the funeral of Tamir Rice. I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a connection.
(I heard, after this was written, of another Grand Jury decision not to indict another police officer involved in the death of an unarmed black man, Eric Garner. This will make the following harder to preach; but if we do not have hope…?)
But the gospel says that those of us who believe will take up snakes and subdue them, that we can swallow the poison and neutralize it, that it will not sour our breath but we will speak in new tongues. We can lay hands on the world and heal it. That’s what this gospel says.
We won’t always get it right. Almost everyone in Covington’s book got bitten at one time or another, because of pride or recklessness, forgetfulness or carelessness, or what was often attributed to a lack of prayer. And many of them loved their snakes. Every saint is a sinner at heart; it is only in God, with God, by the grace of God that we are able to overcome evil, to speak in the new language of love, to lay on hands to heal what ails the world.
I am remembering, now, what that biographer said of Francis: he could begin a conversation at any level and raise it up to God’s. That is the power of speaking in new tongues: that we can begin a conversation with anyone, anyone, and lift it up to God for healing, for renewal, so that the poison is removed, and the serpent subdued. It begins with the simple, genuine inclination to love: to love God, love the people God made, change the world.