Saturday, July 08, 2006

On Pigs and Possession

In the Gospel account of the deliverance of the demoniacs (Matthew 8:28-34), the demons speak a lot more than Christ, but here the important thing is not words but presence and power. Jesus’ very presence provoked the frenzied words of the demons, and the power of this presence cast them out. I’ve read Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’ commentary on this Gospel, so some of what follows will be based on that.

The demons who inhabited the two men were dwelling, first of all, in a place of death, the tombs. God is the Source and Giver of life, and if one rejects Him, only death—and all that has to do with death—remains. But they also were dwelling in uncleanness, for they were in the vicinity of a herd of swine. This was a pagan territory; the name of God was not invoked there, his law was not obeyed; it was full of unclean animals and dead men’s bones—no wonder it was the haunt of demons as well.

Jesus did not go to that place merely to confront evil. The demons had already definitively rejected Him, so there was nothing more He could do for them. He came instead to rescue the men who could still be saved, who were tormented and enslaved by evil, and who were thus in desperate need of their Redeemer.

It was the demons who had the first word. The very presence of Jesus provoked an angry and arrogant response from them—yet one that was also filled with fear: “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” They knew who He was, but that knowledge was not for them salvific. It was only a torment. The demons like to lie and deceive, but when Truth Himself is standing before them, it’s no use. They have to admit who He really is.

They asked if He was coming “before the time.” What time is that? Since they had arrogantly entered the world of man, perhaps they are referring to the time of the harrowing of hell, of Jesus’ descent into their world, when He would liberate all just souls from the prison of Hades. Wherever Jesus goes, He frees human beings from the power and influence of the evil spirits.

Then they spoke again, begging Him to let them flee from his presence: “If you cast us out”—that is, when You cast us out, for they knew they were already beaten—“send us into the herd of swine.” They had to get away from Christ at all costs, even to the point of entering pigs. So Jesus spoke his only word: “Go.” He didn’t even need to say anything; the demons already knew they had to leave, so with a great commotion they entered the unclean animals, who suddenly recognized in themselves something far more unclean than they were, so they jumped off the cliff and into the sea, just to be rid of the ghoulish intruders.

Here Erasmo says something I never thought of: the demons, being spirits, could not die along with pigs, and thus had to go somewhere else (I always assumed they had to go back to Hell), but the demons may at that moment have entered the swineherds, for they too immediately fled from the presence of Jesus. And they went into the town and spread their hatred for Jesus, so that the whole town came out and begged Jesus to leave, just as the demons originally did—they too could not stand to be in his presence.

For our own victory over the dark and unclean powers, we have first to have a greater awareness of, and trust in, the power of the presence of Jesus. Before He ascended to the Father, He said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” That “I am with you,” has to be the bedrock of our spiritual lives. It will be no clever psychological or even spiritual technique that will free us from evil, but only total reliance on the presence of Jesus. We must be aware, however, as in this Gospel account, that the very presence of Jesus provokes a reaction from the demons, but we also have to realize that the rage of the demons is impotent. They have no real power to harm us, and when Jesus is with us, they know they have to leave, even if they put up a big fuss in the meantime.

The key is to stand with Christ, absolutely, without wavering, without fear, and especially without any affinity with whatever the devil is using to draw us over to his side. What happens when people fall into sin, especially grievous sin? They tend to flee from the light, can’t look Jesus in the eye, in essence beg Him to leave, because of their guilt and anger and other conflicting emotions. To sin is to put yourself at odds with Christ, to join the ranks of those who cannot tolerate his presence and who must flee from Him. To persist in sin without repentance to the very end is to flee from Him forever, and that’s what Hell is. Hell is the abyss into which those must leap who are forever running away from Christ, from his truth and his love.

But if we are so foolish as to have bought the lies of the deceiver, then we must at once send a cry from our hearts to our Healer and Savior, that He deliver us from our bondage and make all things new. We must not flee from Him but rather flee to Him, for mercy and healing and the strength to stand firm in the battle against sin and all the unclean powers of darkness. Unlike them, we still have a chance to repent and be saved, so Jesus deals with us not in stern commands to depart from Him but in heartfelt exhortations to walk while we still have the light. If we are to be delivered from evil, we have to confess our sins, not remain in them like possessed men dwelling in the tombs. When Jesus comes to us, we want to be free to embrace Him, and not be constrained to flee Him.

So let us resolve always to choose the way of light, of goodness, purity, repentance, fidelity, and love. We must be ruthless in our fight against evil, yet confident in our resting in the saving presence and power of Christ. For He alone can defeat our enemies, heal our wounds, and preserve us in his grace for the Kingdom of Heaven. To the demons Jesus says “Go,” but to us He says, “Come.”