Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany - January 28, 2024
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Deut. 18:15-20 + Psalm 111 + 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 + Mark 1:21-28
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. + I speak to you today in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
“What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!”
These are the shrieks of a demon possessing a man whom Jesus encountered in the synagogue of Capernaum. In the gospel reading today, Mark goes on to narrate a rather vivid description of an exorcism by which Jesus casts out the demon amidst loud cries and bodily convulsions. It is clear the victim has been suffering terribly up until this moment of his liberation.
Throughout the gospels, graphic exorcisms such as this obscure the psychological sophistication with which the early church understood the demonic. While indeed the idea of demonic possession may well seem primitive to those of us living in a more scientifically astute society, we should not too quickly dismiss the deeper realities such demons as these personify.
Mark describes this maligning spiritual power as a ‘pneumati akathartoi’ — which translates as “unclean spirit.” You will hear in this ‘kathartoi’ the English word “catharsis” (“to cleanse”) but it is negated by the prefix “a” – “A-kathartoi” means literally “unclean” (in which the prefix “a” plays a similar function between the English words “political” which is negated by its opposite “apolitical”).
Here, this unclean spirit embodies an external portrayal of interior emotional, spiritual, psychological, or even physical infirmity. Mental illness, schizophrenia, episodic depression, and epilepsy, are undoubtedly some of the more common medical conditions that were likely interpreted as demonic in origin.
But so too is there a sociological dimension to these exorcisms both here and elsewhere throughout the gospels. Throughout the New Testament, the “demonic” referred as much to oppressive external (that is to say “socio-political”) forces as it did to the darker aspects of one’s own psyche. There can be little doubt, for example, that the demon identified in Mark 5 as “Legion” is but a thinly veiled demonization of the oppressive powers of the Roman Empire whose intense persecution of Mark’s community was indeed being carried out by the Legions – the name given to a full complement of 5,000 Roman soldiers.
It was not lost on Mark, that social maladies of conflict, oppression, and violence among humans were a direct consequence of all that is broken within humans. Indeed, the cosmic battle between good and evil is fought in the microcosm of every human heart.
But another sociological dimension at play here is that of the stigmatization of misfortune and illness common throughout ancient Israel and summed up in the axiom, “Well, they must have done something to deserve it.” Thus, a woman, for example, who was unable to bear children, saw her condition as a social humiliation as if she were somehow to blame. Likewise, a person who experienced a sudden illness or misfortune might suddenly become suspect (think only of the story of Job), as friends and neighbor’s wondered what ‘sin’ they may have committed for God to have withdrawn his favor and protection from them.
Thus, according to the New Testament scholar, Mark Powell, stories of exorcism and deliverance from demonic powers in the gospels always implied three things…to which I will add a fourth.
To that end, Powell observes that when a person is possessed by a demon or “unclean spirit” the gospel narratives suggest, first, that something terrible happened to you: a malady, an accident, a misfortune; second, God did not cause it (either through abandonment or punishment); third, it is not your fault (thus, challenging the social stigma that often followed in the wake of one’s suffering); and finally, I would suggest, these narratives of exorcism suggest that what is needed in the face of such oppressive suffering is healing and deliverance not judgment or condemnation.
Thus, if the ancients understood demonic forces with more sophistication than their depictions would suggest, we might ask conversely whether in a more psychologically astute culture there is ongoing value in speaking of our demons at all. And it would seem to me there is.
To name a ‘demon’ is to do the work of identifying some aspect of ourselves that we experience as alien to our deeper sense of self-awareness. Whether it is a particular dimension of our lives, a pattern of behavior, an addictive tendency, or compulsive action – any of which we experience as somehow ‘dis-integrated’ from our otherwise holistic identity. In other words, I am referring here to any aspect of our lives, our way of thinking, or manner of acting that feels “other” – segregated – incomplete, or again, “alien.”
Whether figuratively or literally, until we are able to name this ‘demon,’ as it were, we are unable to exorcise it. The effect is the same regardless of whether we believe it to be a dark spiritual power or dis-integrated aspect of our psyche. We know, for example, that for those committed to Twelve-Step programs, the naming of demons is a way of life from which all of us could profit.
In such circles, it is customary to introduce oneself by first name accompanied with the public acknowledgment that “I am an alcoholic . . . an addict . . .” and so on. Naming a demon is the first step to gaining control over it.
This same psychology is reflected in the Christian Rite of Exorcism, which requires the priest to compel the possessing demon to reveal its name. Regardless of what we make of exorcisms theologically, there is a psychological (indeed an ethical and sociological) urgency to this naming of that which oppresses us. To the extent that our demons remain unnamed, and unidentified, we inevitably remain complicit for the harm they cause others. The shadow side of ourselves must be named if ever we are to be liberated from its dominance and its power to destroy our lives and the lives of others.
And to name it is to recognize its provenance; that it to say, its origins. One could make the case that such ‘unclean spirits’ do indeed come from the bowels of hell, which is to say, they emerge from the cracks of unhealed psychological wounds, emotional trauma, or addictive tendencies. The havoc they wreak is most often quite evident for the world to see: lives destroyed by substance abuse, sex addiction, rage, greed, and compulsive patterns of behavior that all but destroy one’s capacity to live integrated, communal, and meaningful lives. Their power lies in their capacity to tap into our most base adolescent impulses, demanding instant gratification and stunting our capacity to mature into the more sublime joys of emotional and spiritual adulthood.
When triumphant, these demons reduce us to little more than a shadow of our former selves, isolated from family and society, full of shame, remorse, and self-deprecation. This pattern entrenches us more deeply in the very addictions that have now become our only source of pleasure, or at least temporary relief from our inner state of anguish.
The only thing worse than the addiction itself is the prospect of freeing ourselves from it. Like Israel being led through the wilderness by Moses, the Promised Land seems too far off. Anything would be better than wandering through the desert wasteland of our hearts, not knowing where our spiritual or emotional sustenance will come from next.
The moment we think we have mustered enough resolve to strike out in search of our freedom, we find ourselves with Israel longing for the days of our enslavement: “If only we had meat to eat!” they cried out to Moses. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up…” (Num 11:5-6).
As it turns out, we love our addictions. Despite our enslavement to them, we prefer the meager scraps of fish and garlic they provide rather than risk real spiritual freedom. We prefer the routine safety and the comfort of our enslavement rather than face the unknown wilderness of our heart. In this way, our addictions mask our deepest fears. Better to stick with the slavery we know than confront the fears that will be required of us to attain real personal, spiritual, and psychological freedom. And therein lies the power of unclean spirits.
While not explicit in today’s gospel, stories of exorcism in the New Testament often depict the victim, now liberated, restored to right standing in his village, and readied for the mission of spreading the good news. Possession is isolation. Liberation is re-integration.
And this is what Jesus accomplishes for the Capernaum demoniac in today’s gospel: liberation and re-integration. As Jesus says elsewhere, you will know your life by the fruit it bears.
Ask yourself then, whether your response to the Gospel feels more invitational or confrontational. That is to say, whether it summons you to freedom and liberation; invites you to open your heart through an honest inventory of your life? And in the name of love, opens you to an honest inventory about the ways in which the demons you left unnamed continue to harm you and those around you?
Or, whether you hear Christ only as confrontational: resisting the offer of liberation because through either deep wounds or addictions you are too fearful; or because of greed or complacency it would be too costly. Whatever the reason, if the only voice you hear within you is crying out: “What have you to do with me Jesus, Son of God? Have you come to destroy me?” Chances are, that voice it’s not your own.
May you listen with care.
+ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.