Against the Dark

Fourth Sunday of the Year. Deut 18:15-20, 10; Ps 95:1-2.6-7.7-9; 1 Cor 7:32-35; Mk 1:21-28

Today's Gospel reminds us that the experience of listening to Christ teach would have been quite disturbing on some occasions. While Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on a Sabbath, a man suddenly becomes deranged. He shouts out at Jesus, “What have you to do with us? ... Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are - the Holy One of God!” The incident ends well, with Jesus restoring the man to his rightful mind and sanity, yet some disturbing questions remain. Apparently the unclean spirit was quiescent until Jesus arrived, like some vile creature hidden under a stone. So the man might well have appeared normal until the presence of Christ brought what was hidden into the open. What, then, does this teach us about the condition of the human heart when Christ is absent?

Well it might seem that this Gospel teaches us nothing, because the realities to which it refers may appear incredible or remote. Casting out unclean spirits seems far removed from daily life, partly because the artificial lights that illuminate our civilization seem adequate to drive away the dark. With streetlights, televisions and the bright lights of the Superbowl, tales of demons and unclean spirits might seem like the stuff of children's tales and horror movies. Such ideas are especially alien because of the assumptions which shape the way our minds have been trained. Many cultural influences, such as advertising, keep our minds and quest for happiness preoccupied with material things. Background noise and iPods, along with drink and drugs, insulate many people from thinking about spiritual realities at all. Furthermore, modern science is focused largely on measurements of time and space; numbers and equations on computer screens have no intrinsic morality and are far removed from stories of fallen spirits and exorcisms.

Yet we should pay attention to this Gospel, because its implicit message is that a world without Christ is not some kind of materialist playground or ‘garden of earthly delights’. On the contrary, a world without Christ is a world of darkness, of unclean spirits hidden under stones - ‘stone’ being an apt description of the human heart cut off from the love of God. Furthermore, history teaches us the same lesson. In the French and Russian Revolutions, for example, the violent rejection of Christ and his Gospel did not usher in an Age of Reason, but a Reign of Terror, a destructive vortex of madness and death. In Nazi Germany, the attempted substitution of Christianity with neo-paganism did not give rise to a glorious new world order, but to the horrors of Auschwitz. In much of the Middle East today, where many ancient Christian communities are now being destroyed or driven from their homes, the societies that remain are generally becoming even more violent and hate-filled. Furthermore, even in our own civilization, our artificial lighting and other technologies cannot, by themselves, remedy the darkness of the human heart. Indeed, technology can enslave and destroy us as well as assist us. To give just two examples, computer technology is now being used on a wide scale to spread pornography, which degrades and enslaves the human heart, and medical technology is being used on a wide scale to kill the unborn and, increasingly, others deemed unfit to live.

Now I mention these dark matters only in order to be clear about where our salvation comes from. Christ alone is the light that is effective against the dark, and he has the power to drive out unclean spirits and restore the human soul to sanctity and sanity, to health and to wholeness. Indeed, Christ not only promises to restore our souls, but to make them fruitful, full of beautiful things in the sight of God. So what, then, should we do? Here also the Gospel can guide us if we consider those things that contribute to restoring this poor man to health. First, he is in a place of prayer on the Sabbath, which teaches us that regular prayer, ideally every day, is important. Second, the man is listening to Christ, which teaches us the importance of deepening our knowledge of the faith. Finally, he receives special, direct help to break the hold of evil over his heart: we, too, have such help by means of the sacraments, and especially Confession and the Eucharist. May God help us to make use of all these Gifts to draw closer to him, to become pure and fruitful in his service. 

 Father Andrew Pinsent, Saint Ambrose Church, Saint Louis, 1st February 2009

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