Shaping the spiritual battleground: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 1:29–39:

On leaving the synagogue Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.

When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him.

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you.” He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.

Last week, I had an interesting conversation with our pastor about the readings, which like today’s Gospel touched on the exorcism of demons. He noted that we don’t talk about that much these days, in part because we have learned so much about the nature of disease, both physical and mental. And that’s a blessing, of course — we have healed many people through the scientific approach than we ever would have been able to save even two hundred years ago, let alone two thousand. In those days, people often saw disease as a signal of sin and a punishment from God, rather than a physical or mental illness that required study and effort to comprehend and effectively treat.

However, as we find in Job, the Lord doesn’t work in that manner. In that ancient story, a righteous man is afflicted with disease and catastrophe, not through sin but as a test of faith. In the story, Job is pressed to either abandon the Lord or abandon the truth by those around him by admitting to sins which Job has not committed. Job does neither, but rather insists on telling the truth while lamenting his fate. Having had a good life through the blessings of God, Job tells his friends that His will has turned against Job for some reason, but that it is his duty to bear it:

Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? Are not his days those of hirelings? He is a slave who longs for the shade, a hireling who waits for his wages. So I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me.

Eventually, the debate between Job and his friends gets to be a little too much for the Lord, who addressed Job from the whirlwind. “Where were you,” He asks Job, “when I laid the foundation of the earth?” The Lord’s wrath is kindled toward Job’s friends more as Job repents of his complaining, demanding that they offer a sacrifice and have Job pray for them, but God makes His point about assuming to know His will and His purpose. The Lord has power and authority over all things, and all things eventually serve His will, but that doesn’t mean that the Lord is the cause of every affliction on Earth. As we have learned over the ages, most of it is the consequence to living in a fallen world. And much of that we can address with the resources of this world by applying our intellect and our caritas, whether that takes the form of formal medicine or through the charitable works of a Saint Theresa of Calcutta or Saint Damien of Molokai.

This brings us back to today’s Gospel reading, which distinguishes between disease and demons. All of the Gospels make that distinction, with reports of Jesus healing both. In the modern context, it’s easy to assume that the Gospel writers are making a distinction between physical and mental illnesses, of which the latter’s nature was even less well understood. However, that would be an incorrect assumption. In multiple instances, the demon exorcised manifested itself as a physical impediment: in Mark 9, for instance, it made a boy deaf and mute and caused convulsions. In Matthew 9, a deaf-mute man is restored to full capacity through an exorcism as well.

If that wasn’t sign enough, of course, the demons try to make it crystal clear when contending with Jesus. In today’s passage, we read that Jesus silenced the demons first “because they knew him,” a reference to Jesus’ eternal presence in the Creation. In other Gospel passages, they manage to get the revelation out first, such as in Luke 4:31-37, in a passage that directly preceded today’s Gospel reading from Mark:

Then Jesus went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and began teaching the people on Sabbath days. They were utterly amazed at what he taught, because his message was spoken with authority. In the synagogue was a man who had a demon. He screamed with a loud voice, “Oh, no! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are the Holy One of God!”

But Jesus rebuked him. “Be quiet,” he said, “and come out of him!” At this, the demon threw the man down in the middle of the synagogue and came out of him without hurting him. Overwhelmed with amazement, they all kept saying to one another, “What kind of statement is this? because with authority and power he gives orders to unclean spirits, and they come out!” So news about him spread to every place in the surrounding region.

This brings us back around to my conversation last week. Why are the Gospels so filled with demonic affliction and exorcism? The easy answer is what I mentioned earlier — that the writers of the time didn’t understand the nature of illness, but the Gospels themselves belie that conclusion.

Clearly, this served a purpose for that time: it showed Jesus’ authority over both the physical and spiritual worlds. Not only does Jesus command the demons to flee, He also heals actual physical and mental illnesses through the same authority as the Lord. Later, Jesus will pass this authority to the apostles through the Holy Spirit, who are always careful to invoke the name of Jesus as the authority for their healings. It is an unmistakable sign that He is the Messiah and of the same substance as the Father.

But it also calls to mind another point, which is the nature of Christ’s mission on Earth. The sacrifice of the Lamb is the fulcrum on which eternity rests; in Revelation, John tells us that it is the central focus of our life with the Lord in the hereafter. Every Mass connects us to that eternal celebration of the wedding feast of the Lamb, joining this world to the eternal in a celebration both inside and outside of space and time. The forces arrayed against the Lord — demons led by Satan — would have gone all out to thwart Christ’s mission of salvation at that very moment in time, corrupting and destroying the foundation of the Israelites in order to snuff out Jesus’ preparation for both the Passion and the church Jesus creates in its aftermath.

It is in the context of this spiritual battle, as well as the mercy for the physical aftershocks of the fall of Adam and Eve, that these healings take place. In a way, Jesus resets the battleground by forcing all of man’s enemies into retreat, and in doing so destroys a number of the enemy. All of this clears the way for Christ’s sacrifice for all to defeat sin, a sacrifice we can join of our own free will — the one solitary and eternal sacrifice which we join and celebrate at Mass.

Jesus assures us of this victory. All we have to do is to follow Job’s advice about accepting the tasks the Lord has given him, which Paul echoes in his first letter to the Corinthians. He preaches the Gospel, Paul writes, because that is his task assigned by the Lord; “Woe to me if I don’t preach it!” He explains that he has been entrusted with a stewardship, which he upholds so that “I too may have a share” in the Gospel. We have seen His power, His authority, His mercy, and finally our salvation through Him. We need only to choose Him and to do His will.

The front page image is “Christ Healing the Mother of Simon Peter’s Wife” by John Bridges, 1839. On display at the Birmingham Museum of Art, via Wikimedia.

“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.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.