One of the things that might strike us about the readings for today is the exorcism of the man in the synagogue. Among you there may be several different reactions to this mention of exorcism.
Some may think that the man’s condition was described as diabolical possession simply because the people of the time did not understand mental illness, epilepsy or other medical conditions and they assumed that his behaviour must indicate possession by evil spirits. Yet others will approach these things in a quite literal way and believe that possession is a more common affliction in the modern world than most people realise.
I believe that we should acknowledge that the power of evil certainly exists and is manifested in the world in many different ways. Just watching the television news a few nights running will tell you this much. What else can explain some of the horrendous things that occur, other than that the perpetrators have given in to the powers of evil? Deep-seated selfishness and hatred are not the work of God nor can they ever be remotely in the interests of human well-being.
Although it is important to understand that God does not create evil, we must realise that both angels and men can and do reject Christ and the goodness that he represents, and that this is the route to considerable damage to the individual and to others.
What is particularly interesting in the Gospel account is the demon’s reaction to the presence of Jesus. The disturbance took place in the Synagogue and since this was a place of solemn liturgy in the normal course of events the disturbed man would probably have been quickly hustled out. However, before this happens, the demon calls out and acknowledges Jesus as the Holy One of God.
It seems to take a possessed man to recognise the sheer goodness of Jesus, even if this was because he represents a terrible threat to the powers of darkness. We have already been told that the people in the Synagogue were impressed by Jesus and regarded him as a teacher who spoke with authority, but at this stage they do not go beyond this. Then suddenly he is recognised by the demon for who he really is.
Jesus has no truck with the demon and commands it to be silent and orders it to come out of the man. With a great cry the man is suddenly freed from this horrible possession. It must have been an extraordinary liberation for him and his family. While this is undoubtedly a great miracle of healing, the important point is that Jesus is recognised as the Messiah, as the Holy One of God. And that this acknowledgement is made not by man but by a spiritual power, albeit a malign one. If anyone ought to be able to recognise Jesus’s true nature it is an evil spirit.
Now it is not just Jesus’ teaching authority that is recognised but his true spiritual stature. He makes a deep impression on men but even more so on evil spirits. Right here at the beginning of the Gospel Jesus is being acknowledged as the Messiah, the Prophet, the Holy One of God.
The first reading has been deliberately chosen to highlight this point. We are taken right back to the time of Moses, the lawgiver, the one who led the Chosen People out of captivity in Egypt. Moses tells the people that in due time God is going to send a prophet equal to himself, if not greater in spiritual stature, who will be a true prophet and who will speak to the Chosen People the words that God will put into his mouth.
This is to be no ordinary prophet but the Christ, the Anointed One, the Holy One of God. The reason why God finds it necessary to send a prophet is given by Moses in the text, it is because we humans could not bear the sight of God. God’s glory is so great that it is not possible for us to look upon it and live. Our redeemer must come in human form, he must look like us and talk like us. His divinity must be hidden from our eyes. Outwardly hidden from our eyes certainly, but not really hidden from those with insight, not hidden from those with the eyes of faith. Not hidden from us.
What St Mark is doing is setting the scene. He does it quickly and deftly in his short but dramatic account of the life of Jesus. He leaves a lot of details out of his account and only includes what he regards as the important essentials. In the first Chapter of Mark’s Gospel John points Jesus out, who is then Baptised and tempted in the Desert; he then returns to Galilee where he proclaims the Good News and selects his first disciples. Then comes this incident in Capernaum where Jesus is acknowledged by the people for his authority as a preacher and teacher, and, of course, recognised for who he is by the demon.
All this and we have only got to the twenty-eighth verse! Mark has a story to tell and he tells it faithfully but fast. Mark wants us to believe in Jesus and gives us only the information we need to make our decision. He wants us to be clear about who Jesus is; that he is indeed the one, true Saviour of the World and that in order for us to be saved we need to know him, believe in him and follow his Gospel of Love.
For Mark the Gospel is fundamentally about freedom. This Jesus might be a good preacher and teacher but he is much more than that. He is the only one who can release us from all that binds us, from all our inner demons, from all our sinfulness. He is our liberator in the very deepest sense of that word. This Jesus is the only one who can restore us to the life of grace and enable us to walk the way that brings us to unity with God. This is true freedom; this is us exercising the choice to be who God wants us to be.
The climax of St Mark’s account of the life of Jesus is the moment when the Veil of the Temple is torn in two. This is the moment when Jesus yields up his spirit and heaven and earth are joined. This is the moment when all that is hidden is revealed. This is the moment of victory over sin and death.
At precisely this most sacred moment another complete outsider who you wouldn’t expect to know anything, the Centurion, the official representative of the greatest secular power in the world, proclaims his recognition of who Jesus really is and expresses himself in the immortal words: “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
These words we can make our own. These words can save us. These words are our greatest protection against all that is evil.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket