We continue to pray with Chapter 5 of Mark’s Gospel…
THE HEALING OF THE GERASENE DEMONIAC
In the last lectio divina encounter we meditated on the destructive force of the evil one as Mark sees him possessing this man who lives among the tombs. Jesus goes to meet the man, and the forces which possess him, and they come to him, ready for the encounter. We remember that this type of possession and affliction is a living death in many ways, and Mark emphasizes this for us, depicting this man living in a tomb-scape, a limbo, among the tombs but not yet in one, walking with death as a constant companion and yet ready to break free into life.
To a great extent we all share in this tomb-scape existence – the presence and nature of sin in our lives robs us of the fullness of grace which gives us life and allows us to participate in the divine life. It is precisely the separation from Christ which sin brings which is our death. But all is certainly not lost – Christ redeems in order that sin does not have the last word and so that death is not the final verdict for us.
Should we be in any doubt about this, we can listen to St Paul lifting us up, writing to the Romans:
“If God is for us, who can be against us? Since he did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for the sake of all of us, then can we not expect that with him he will freely give us all his gifts? Who can bring any accusation against those that God has chosen? When God grants saving justice, who can condemn? Are we not sure that it is Christ Jesus who died – yes and more, who was raised from the dead and is at God’s right hand – and who is adding his plea for us? Can anything cut us off from the love of Christ – can hardships or distress, or persecution, or lack of food and clothing, or threats or violence? No; we come through all these things triumphantly victorious, by the power of him who loved us. For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, not angels, not principalities, nothing already in existence and nothing still to come, nor any power, nor the heights nor the depths, nor any created thing whatever, will be able to come between us and the love of God, known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord”.Romans 8:31-39
Catching sight of Jesus (v.6) – it’s almost as if Mark wants to suggest the briefest glimpse of Jesus is enough to start the process of delivering and healing this man. And he emphasises this by telling us that the man is still at a distance to Jesus, far away.
There is an extraordinary parallel here to a story which we only find in Luke’s Gospel – that of the so-called Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). But in that case we look at the reverse of this coin – it is the loving father who is watching out for his younger son, who has suffered so badly far from home and far from his father, become almost a beast minding pigs; and while the young man is still a far way off, his father sees him and goes to him, and the young man falls to feet and asks for the healing forgiveness which will restore him. He has managed to leave behind his old self in the far distant land where he was hardly himself, robbed of his identity and dignity, and is welcomed again as a son, loved and cherished. His father commands his servants to give him the symbols which bring with them dignity of personhood and sonship – a robe, sandals, a ring. In effect, he is fully clothed again, on the outside and within.
Here, in Mark, this poor man, no better than a howling beast who has lost all sense of who he is, all respect for himself, and even for his own body, runs up to Jesus. He catches sight of Jesus from afar. He needs healing and forgiveness and restoration to the man that he really is. He needs to be reclothed – not just in outward clothing, but completely in his integrity, in his sense of self and personhood!
But, as we said before, he is so lost in himself that it appears it is not him speaking, but the evil spirits. We know this from even slight experience – when we talk with someone who is so far gone from himself that it appears he hardly knows us, that it’s not her talking at all. But when I lose track of myself, of who I am, and when my way of life doesn’t ring true with the person that people think I am? This is a moment which can be a wake up call, a moment when we come to our senses, when we return to ourselves.
So often it takes openness to another, to their wisdom, to their courage, who let us know this – can I listen to one who loves me and wants me to change so that I can be myself? Do I have the compassion, courage, humility, to speak to another – family member or friend – and let them know they are on the wrong track but I want to support them and accompany them on this rough, and wrong road, until they realise this for themselves?
The demons recognise Jesus. Sometimes this puzzles us – how can they acknowledge him, speak his name, now his identity? But then we remember that they are spiritual creatures, part of the Father’s creative outpouring, through the ever creative eternal Word. Here, the evil spirits recognise Jesus fully – Son of the Most High God. Mark is letting us know that the evil one is subject to Jesus, Son of God – so, no matter how destructive, how malicious, how devious he is, the evil one is no match for Christ! We ourselves have to recognise this in our own lives, and even in the society in which we live and which, even on our very doorsteps, allows the evil one an extraordinary amount of legroom and influence. The world really is his playground, in a sense, but he is not the master. This sense that, in Christ, we have won the victory is important – despair and hopelessness cannot be part of the Christian’s identity or way of behaving.
Jesus commands the demon to reveal its name, and now we come to a devastating moment for this man – not one but many evil spirits have possession of him. Each one has a source, and each one torments him. The name “Legion” should stop us in our tracks. We remember that the Palestine of Jesus’ day was an occupied province in the Roman empire, with its own governor and resident army. The legionaries were, then, a familiar sight, and a sign of control, oppression and, from time to time, brutal and harsh interaction with the local people. So, there really is a military flavour in the air here – there is a battle being waged for this man’s worth, identity and personhood, and perhaps even his salvation. And the attack comes from many sides, and in many different forms. Perhaps we are reminded that it’s the same for us – there are myriad ways in which we can lose our freedom as persons by choosing against Christ and all that he brings.
If we look with St Benedict’s eyes and hear with his ears then the idea of entering into a spiritual battle is very familiar territory. Indeed, for Benedict the monk signs up for life, as it were (RB58) just as man would have done had been entering the Roman army – a life-time commitment to fight under the standard of the imperial eagle. For Benedict, Christ is the true king and lord under whom we do battle with the noble weapons of obedience (Prologue to the Rule); the monk “serves” under a rule and abbot (as a soldier would) (RB1); and he emphasises this later on saying that “wherever we may be, we are in the service of the same Lord and doing battle for the same King” (RB 61). So, the notion of a legion of evil spirits confronting us is in line with the notion of the combat which is expected of us in this life. St Paul uses the very same imagery when speaking about the spiritual tools which we must take up for our protection in Ephesians 6:10-20:
“Finally, grow strong in the Lord, with the strength of his power. Put on the full armour of God so as to be able to resist the devil’s tactics…. So, stand your ground, with truth a belt around your waist, and uprightness a breastplate, wearing for shoes on your feet the eagerness to spread the gospel of peace, and always carrying the shield of faith so that you can use it to quench the burning arrows of the evil one. And then you must take salvation as your helmet and the sword of the Spirit, that is, the word of God.”Ephesians 6:10-20
If you wished to pray this passage by using all your senses, exterior and interior, to enter into the scene and become one of those standing with Jesus, then see, hear, smell, feel, taste what happens next. Perhaps it’s hard for us to imagine this scene – 20 pigs perhaps, 200 pigs at a stretch – but two thousand? Try to imagine the noise, of the pigs as they squeal, of their running, galloping down that hill, of the tumult of the water as they plunge in, of the screams of their herdsmen; the dust thrown up, suffocating, blinding, in ears, eyes, nose, against face, hands; the stink of the stench of their muck as they are emptied by the panic of the spirits which have them, and which fling them wild in all directions. It’s almost too much to take in. This is the chaos which the evil one brings with him. And perhaps that is what Mark wants us to understand – this is not Jesus destroying two thousand pigs, as some say. On the contrary, he gives the spirits leave to go, and that’s where the spirits go.
As a sidebar we might note that the evil spirits didn’t want to leave that district. Why? Was it a place where they, in a sense, felt at home? Were the people there disposed in a curious way to entertain them, seek them out, dabble in this sort of thing? The Gerasenes were not Jews, and so may have followed their own, occult beliefs. Then again, this is not an insignificant detail – nothing in Scripture is insignificant. Evil flourishes when we give it the opportunity, when we invite it in, when we leave aside the virtuous practices of our faith and opt for the vice-driven alternatives. The evil spirits, driven from this man, might well have found another, equally malleable host. The invitation to us to mind ourselves, our friends, the decisions we make which open up the wrong moral conversations, is fairly clear.
Anyway, it is clear that evil destroys not only the human person, but anything in creation which it can touch. The pigs are part of God’s created work, and they suffer the destruction which evil can ultimately achieve. Perhaps there is a question for us here – the fate of the pigs could have so easily been the fate of the man also – he was already gashing and cutting himself, and so that destructive cycle was initiated in him. Nevertheless we shouldn’t automatically conclude that nature is expendable and worthless – it is God’s gift and we treat it as such. But the devil cares not at all for the goodness of God or his gifts.
We return to the now transformed scene – Jesus, always in control, with the man, now calm, at himself, clothed, in his full senses. Night and day, in a way. And we must now respond to the reactions of the people who come running to see for themselves what has happened – they are afraid. What has put this fear into them – a fear which is different to that which the possessed man might have inspired, or the legion which was in him, or the panic of the pigs and that chaos? It is a very different fear, and one which is entirely outside their experience, it would seem.
They certainly associate the feelings which they have now with Jesus and his presence. So this is a fear which is inspired by the sense of something other being manifest – do they know for themselves that, without being able to name him or title him, this is the Son of the Most High God standing among them, this is God standing among them? Certainly the fear which Scripture tells us about when persons become aware of God is real and felt and terrible, in a way. It’s not a fear of punishment, a fear which frightens, but that fear which we sometimes call awe, in its true sense – to be in the presence of the one who is awesome, who inspires this feeling of being overwhelmed in the best possible way. But it is an awe which challenges, because it is the awe of the Holy One:
“I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; his train filled the sanctuary. Above him stood seraphs, each one with six wings: two to cover its face, two to cover its feet and two for flying; and they shouting these words to each other: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Sabaoth. His glory fills the whole earth. The door-posts shook at the sound of their shouting and the Temple was full of smoke. Then I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord God of Sabaoth.’”Isaiah 6:1-5
This experience of the prophet Isaiah is a moment of awe, fear and trembling – he knows he is in the presence of God, and suddenly he sees himself as he is, stripped naked before the frightening power of God. Perhaps there is something here in Mark’s account as these Gerasenes stand with Jesus and know both him and themselves – he looks at them, and they at him, and in that gaze they are afraid.
But we get the sense that the man who has been delivered does not share this fear – his is an altogether different relationship with Jesus, because Jesus has restored him, to life, we might say, delivered him from wandering in the tombs, not even with himself for company, but with a company of others who have taken him away from himself. And his response – not to be separated from Jesus, but to remain with him – he wants to be in Jesus’ company.
This is the transformation of grace for this man, and actually for all of us who can take a step, however faltering, into his presence. Jesus commissions this man – his expression of his new life is to go and preach – to go home and tell all that the Lord in his mercy has done for him. And Mark tells us that he didn’t argue, he didn’t tell Jesus that he wanted to do something different, he didn’t dispute Jesus’ command – he went and did. In fact, he becomes the first missionary – he acknowledges what Jesus has done for him, he rejoices in his new-found self, and he goes off to share his experience.
What a turnaround this gospel story provides for us – from utter chaos, out of control nature and humankind, possession, degradation, confusion, the senses assailed, fear and trembling – to healing, rejoicing, wonderment, preaching good news, calm restored, the evil one vanquished, and Christ in the midst of it all: Son of the Most High God! It is a powerful journey, for each of us personally.
“But deliver us from evil”. How many times a day do we say this? As often as we pray the Our Father! Do we pray it often enough? Perhaps not! How do we stand vigilant against the assaults and wiles of the Evil One as he plays with us? Have we identified the tools which we can use to keep him in his place?
Again we are reminded that we have the tools to do this. Right from the moment of our baptism, that washing with water, accompanied by a prayer delivering us from evil and asking for protection from the evil one, to the invocation of the Trinity, to the reception of the light of Christ, to the touching of ears and mouth and so the consecration and anointing of our senses, to the symbolic clothing in white, the presence of the Risen Christ in our lives – right from that moment God tells us that our life has a different quality because he loves us and call us his son or daughter. Then, much more our birthright than that of the evil spirits, we have been given Jesus’ name so that we can invoke him, call on him, address him:
“It is by the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, whom you crucified, and God raised from the dead, by this name and no other that this man stands before you cured…. For of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which we can be saved”Acts 4:10-12
So, already in this lectio there is an invitation to enter deeply into the prayer which is the invocation of the Holy Name, or the Jesus Prayer.
Undoubtedly, we are asked to recognise that, from time to time, we walk among the tombs. Perhaps we have become accustomed to making it our usual place of work and play, and have become anaesthetised to the effect it has on us. Perhaps we know that others of our friends or family are walking there, living there, struggling there, and need to be accompanied back to life. We all know by bitter experience that it can be difficult to persuade someone else to change their behaviour and the course they have adopted, even when they see for themselves that it is harmful. They cannot change until they see for themselves where they are and where they might be. This may even be the case for ourselves. In those times it can be painful and personally costly to accompany another – but somehow we are asked to find the grace to do this, until they too can catch sight of Christ and move to meet him. Then the gospel which we proclaim is above all one of hope.
Lectio ultimately is about the Word of God speaking to me, reading me and my experience, and asking me to reflect and be changed by what I receive. The closing verses of this passage are particularly moving for one who takes seriously their life in Christ, for whom Christ is everything – how do I respond to those moments, great and small, in my life when God’s grace changes me, transforms me, makes me become more the person whom he has loved into existence, and continues to love into the fullness of life? This man went off and told others what God had done for him – he is set on fire by God’s lifting him up from ruin and restoring to life, through Christ’s walking with him in his life and experience. The first thing must be for me – noticing that God is there, working with me, in me, around me, through me, for me. That noticing is the first moment of grace, and it leads to the second moment – wondering thanksgiving. After all the shouting and clamour and din that this passage throws at us perhaps that is the central moment – that, clothed and fully myself, I share my joyful experience of God with others.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-