Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every year we hear this encounter between our Lord and the Gadarene or Gerasene demoniac, as he is sometimes called, three times – once from each of the Synoptic Evangelists who record this event (Mt. 8:28-34; Mk. 5:1-20; Lk. 8:26-39). Not once, mind you, but three times, making this a challenge to both the preacher and the congregation! As Fr. John, of blessed memory, used to call this the story of the “flying pigs,” one wonders what the Church sees in this encounter to include it three times in the lectionary cycle?
As I was contemplating this story yet again, it came to me that perhaps what the Church sees in this expulsion of the demonic is an icon of the greater expulsion, the great rescue mission of the Son of God – a real honest-to-goodness application of the parable of our Lord when He refuted the notion that He went about casting out demons by the hand of Satan himself! First, the strong man must be bound by one stronger, Jesus says, and then his house or domain can be plundered and ransacked. “’[I]f I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the Kingdom of God has come upon you,’” declares our Lord (Mt. 11:22-30; Lk. 11:14-23). In essence, then, our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ is the One stronger than the powers of Hell Who binds Satan and then proceeds to harrow Hades – the last refuge and stronghold of the devil!
It is a humiliating thing to be trounced so thoroughly when you have home field advantage. And yet, this is precisely what our Lord does here in this encounter – He tramples down the demonic. He comes to a place full of darkness and despair, a place controlled by fear. It is an unclean place inhabited by unclean persons and unclean animals – pigs and their herders – an unclean practice, according to Jewish Levitical purity laws. Anyone coming into contact with the unclean is rendered ritually unclean, unable to rightly worship God. We see this purity law at work in the parable of the Good Samaritan when the priest and the Levite both avoid the body lying in a ditch, a body bruised and battered and possibly dead (Lk. 10:25-37) which, of course, would have made them unclean, rendering them both unfit to serve in the Temple.
But, Jesus does not avoid the unclean. He goes in pursuit of the unclean souls who dwell in a land of darkness, enshrouded and in bondage, perhaps held captive to superstitions that find their origins, not in God, but in the evil one. Jesus Christ is the Son of God Who, just before His landing on the shores of the Gadarenes, had seized control of the tumultuous waters of the stormy lake that had terrified His Disciples so that they despaired of life itself. Jesus arose, says the Gospel, “and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water. And they ceased, and there was a calm.” The terrified Disciples now find themselves afraid, not because of the life-threatening storm, but because of Jesus Himself this time. They “marveled,” says the Gospel, “saying to one another, “Who can this be? For He commands even the winds and water, and they obey Him!’” (Lk. 8:22-25).
“’Who can this be?’” And the answer is given and expanded upon here in this story of the exorcism of the Gadarene demoniac. The One Who has power over nature, has power over the spiritual realm. He is stronger than the one the world perceives, by all accounts, to be the strong man. Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. The Son of Man is the Son of God. He is Lord of the Sabbath. He is Creator; He is Saviour; He is Sanctifier! He is the One Whom the Church magnifies in the opening psalm of every Vespers service (Ps. 103 :1-35). He has power over the creation He has brought into existence out of nothing. He has power over the spirits, once good, but now fallen and blacker than black, who are possessed by pure evil – the evil one. These fallen spirits are demons who torment and tempt. Who they are is captured here by what they do to this hapless soul. The Gospel says he was possessed by a “legion” of evil spirits, hence the name the possessed man gives our Lord. We gain the enormity of this man’s dire straits when we consider that a Roman legion, by some estimates, consisted of at least 3,000 soldiers! So much for the introductory philosophical question of how many angels can fit on the head of a pin! More to the point here, how many demons can inhabit the soul of a man?
This man was in this spiritual state for “a long time,” according to the Evangelist. He wore no clothing, he lived in no house, opting rather to dwell in the tombs of the dead. He so terrorized his neighbors that they chained him with chains, but he broke free of them. He was out of his mind, mad, a stark raving lunatic! The demons “drove” him into the wilderness of craziness, drove him into a stark and severe reality: he was compelled by evil to be isolated from all human community. His neighbors, his family, his friends feared him. Evil stripped him of all humanity and the dignity of the imago Dei, that is, of the image of God shared by all mankind. God in His mercy clothed the nakedness of the fallen Adam and Eve (Gn. 3:21). But, not so the devil and his minions. There is no mercy, no compassion in them towards those whom they subjugate. Evil “drives out” in order to destroy. Evil does not create but rather corrupts and tears down; it separates and isolates; it causes fear and division.
But, the Son of God comes from Heaven to this place. He is our good God Who loves mankind. He comes to heal and to restore – to save. He comes with healing in His wings and salvation (Ma. 4:2). We hear in another Gospel how the Spirit of God – the Holy Spirit – “drove” the Son of God out into the wilderness immediately after His Baptism in the waters of the Jordan (Mk. 1:12). The Son of God is compelled, “forced” into the wilderness for our good: for the healing of our souls and for the salvation of the world, unlike what the demons do and intend. Jesus is driven into the wilderness to encounter and to engage the evil one himself on his territory, to continue reversing and undoing the works of sin, death, and the devil begun by His holy Incarnation and brought to fullness by the sending of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. “For us men and for our salvation” the Son of God came down from Heaven and became Man (Nicene Creed), that is, He assumed, put on our flesh, voluntarily assuming our death brought about by sin and the envy of the devil, though as the sinless Son of God He did not have to die because He was not beholden to death, obligated to it as we sinners are and must be (WS 2:23-24).
What Jesus is doing here in this story is, He is showing us Who He truly is. He is demonstrating Who He is by manifesting the power and the authority rightly belonging to Him as Almighty God over all creation, over all things “visible and invisible” (Nicene Creed). The fortress of Hell itself cannot withstand the onslaught of God’s great love and desire to save His fallen world and, in particular, to heal the sin-tainted, death-ravaged soul of man created in His image and likeness – something the devil nor his demons know or can understand.
See, here, beloved, what sin, death, and the devil has done to God’s good creation! This unholy triumvirate keeps us in bondage to darkness and despair; it blinds us to its reality, and its terrible effects and consequences. It drives a wedge between us and God, isolating us from God and from one another, cutting us off from all that is good and holy and full of divine Life. Sin, death, and the devil creates suspicion and distrust. It distorts the Truth of God and perverts knowledge of Him. It causes us to fear God, not in a good and holy way that Sacred Scripture calls “the fear of God.” But rather it makes us to run and hide, just like Adam and Eve (Gn. 3:8-10), just like this poor bedeviled soul in today’s Gospel who finds more commonality with the dead than with the living!
So often, beloved, when we are in pain and suffering, whether it be in body, soul, or spirit, the devil constrains us to retract into ourselves, retreat and isolate ourselves from others, withdraw from the very ones who love us and whose support we most desperately need, just like the paralytic who needed to be carried by his four companions to the house where the Saviour was found (Mt. 9:1-8; Mk. 2:1-12; Lk. 5:17-26). In particular, the devil persuades us to turn away from the Church where God is truly present, and His health and salvation. We become, as it were, like animals, injured and wounded, and not be men and women bearing the dignity of our humanity created in the image of God and capable of sharing in the divine nature, a creation which God looked upon, blessed, and declared to be “very good” (Gn. 1:26-27, 31; WS 2:23).
Most notably, perhaps, from this encounter is how the Evangelist concludes the story. The people who once feared the demon-possessed, now fear Jesus instead, and the man who was made to be like an irrational animal by the powers of spiritual darkness, now sits at the feet of the Master, “clothed, and in his right mind.” I love that image: “clothed, and in his right mind.” This is what awaits us all in Christ when we surrender ourselves as living sacrifices to Him Who alone has the power to heal and to restore our sin-fragmented selves (Rm. 12:1-2). The people, beholding the power of God over evil, fear greatly and irrationally, and beseech Jesus to leave them, while the man, now clothed, and in his right mind, beseeches our Lord God and Saviour to “be with Him.” This healed and saved soul is rendered a “God-fearing” man while those others are made to fear God irrationally. This is what the evil one does. This is the confusion of spiritual darkness. Take note and attend! The man approaches the holy “in the fear of God, and with faith and love,” while the others “taken with great fear” beg the Lord to depart from them, to leave them alone just as the legion of demons had done earlier.
Who can this be? This is Christus Victor – Christ the Victor, Christ the Conqueror, Christ the Trampler down of death by His own Death and Resurrection, and the Bestower of Life upon all those in the tombs, Christ the Strong Man Who binds the evil one in his own house, Christ the Harrower of Hades, Christ the Liberator of Adam and Eve in bondage. Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen! We live in the light of the Resurrection that illumines our darkened world, whose victory we celebrate here in this feast of thanksgiving. Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the Light that enlightens every soul, the Light no darkness can comprehend nor overcome (Jn. 1:4-5, 9)! The man – sinners! – who once preferred darkness to light, death to life, now sits at the feet of the Master, “clothed, and in his right mind.” And, our Lord bids him to follow Him by going to bear witness to others what God has done for him.
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him Who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy (1 Pe. 2:9-10).
“And [the man] went his way, and proclaimed throughout the whole city what great things Jesus [the God made Man in the flesh] had done unto him.”
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!