This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 1:21–28:
Then they came to Capernaum, and on the sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him. All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.
Whenever the Gospels turn explicitly to spiritual warfare, I usually think of The Screwtape Letters and C.S. Lewis. The entire book brilliantly encapsulates not just the concepts of the spiritual tension, but also offers a very practical treatise in preservation, even if Lewis does so by reverse-engineering the process. And of course, it’s such an entertaining read that one often overlooks Lewis’ intellectual and theological rigor in his compact and satisfying novel.
Today’s Gospel especially reminds me of one particular passage from The Screwtape Letters. In the fourth chapter, Screwtape wryly observes that humans often profess to desire to be close to the Lord, but have no real idea what that means. Rather than come to grips with the omnipotence of God and the unmasking His presence brings, people will instead shy away from the awe His presence generates — “awe” in the truly biblical sense. Instead of allowing themselves to be exposed to the Lord in that manner, Screwtape tells his nephew that they will instead find objects to distract themselves from it, a “composite object” that allows them to escape the scrutiny of a real encounter with the Lord even in prayer.
In avoiding this situation—this real nakedness of the soul in prayer—you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose. There’s such a thing as getting more than they bargained for!
This problem goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve defied the Lord and tried to assume equality with Him, they were made aware of their own nakedness. What was the first thing they did? They ran and hid, realizing their sinfulness and unworthiness. They got more than they bargained for, in Lewis’ words.
Similarly, the Israelites grew weary of the Lord’s closeness during their 40 years in the desert. They had already tried making a “composite object” to distract themselves from the Lord — the golden calf — even though the Lord had led them out of slavery and toward the Promised Land. In our first reading from Deuteronomy, Moses reminded the Israelites of their weariness, and the Lord’s plan to offer His wisdom through chosen prophets instead.
This is exactly what you requested of the LORD, your God, at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let us not again hear the voice of the LORD, our God, nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘This was well said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin, and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him.
The Israelites had also gotten more than they bargained for, but the use of prophets didn’t stop their self-destructive ways. Even at the pinnacle of their success, the Israelites fell into idolatry, and the history of the prophets is one of defiance by the Israelites.
At the end of this cycle of prophets, the Lord returns to lead His people to salvation, but this time in the form of a perfected human — what Adam was called to be. Rather than using a pillar of fire or a formless cloud, this Theophany came in humble form in order to call us back to our true relationship with the Lord. That meekness does not mean, however, that Jesus dispensed with His true divine nature, and today’s Gospel is one of the reminders of that in the New Testament.
Lewis captures some of the dynamics of today’s Gospel in his final chapter of The Screwtape Letters. Jesus’ voice calls out the unclean spirit, not just on His command but also by His divine nature. Lewis writes about the “cool light” which is clarity itself, and wears the form of a Man” — to humans who pass through death to the Lord. To the demons, this light is “a blinding, suffocating fire” that creates involuntary pain and anguish to forces of evil, but is sustaining through the trials of judgment to all others. The reaction of the demonic spirit to Jesus’ presence demonstrates His power, and also His grace in saving those afflicted by sin.
That is, if they accept that salvation and embrace the Lord’s love and forgiveness. That brings us to today’s responsorial from Psalm 95: If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. It is no easy thing to be drawn into true communion with Christ, and to start to dimly see yourself not as you presume but as you truly are. Adam and Eve failed to do that and got deceived into thinking they were gods themselves. How many of us make that same mistake? Isn’t it easier to ignore God’s call and to idolize ourselves, hardening our hearts not just to Him but to others as well?
Of course it is, but the more we choose that path, the less we recognize we are on it. The light of the Lord is constant, but our reaction to it depends on our own choices. We can be called out of our fallenness by keeping our hearts open and recalling our right relationship with the Lord and each other. We can also fade so far from the light that it becomes unendurable, just as it did to the unclean spirit in the Gospel and to Wormwood in The Screwtape Letters. We much choose wisely, because either way, we will get more than we bargained for.
The front-page image is a detail from “Exorcism at the Synagogue in Capernaum,'” an eleventh-century fresco. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.