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.
I thought I’d begin by taking a look at the Gospel of St. Mark, the featured Gospel for this liturgical year. It’s the shortest and sharpest of the four Gospels and most scholars believe that it was the first one to be written. It has about it a terseness and snap, the punch of a well-honed delivery. There’s no birth narrative, no story of Mary and Joseph or shepherds or Wisemen; Mark goes right to the ministry of Jesus.
When Mark wrote this Gospel in the mid-first century, becoming a follower of Jesus was a radical and dangerous decision. It usually meant strong disapproval or even outright rejection by friends and family. To be a follower of Jesus, a disciple if you will, meant that those who at one time avoided each other became brothers and sisters in the Lord: the affluent with the slave, the devout Jew with the decadent Gentile, Greek patricians with former Roman soldiers, they all joined with ex-harlots and tax collectors and thieves and murderers, banded and bonded together in the worldly absurdity of following a carpenter from some backwater village who had suffered the most ignominious form of capital punishment, knowing that at any moment their faith could result in imprisonment, torture and death by the ruthless Romans.
In spite of all this, as one reads the words of St. Mark’s Gospel, there is a sense of overflowing joy. Mark is fairly bursting with the Good News of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, crucified and raised gloriously from the dead. For Mark, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus changed the history of the world; in fact it brought history to its culmination. It’s what makes sense of, and brings completion to, all that God did for his people Israel and was foretold in their scriptures, what we call the Old Testament.
St. Mark writes in plain, even blunt, language, a rudimentary style of Greek that made his writings understandable and accessible to those who could barely read. Consequently his writings were often disparaged as being unrefined and even vulgar. Yet there is energy and intensity and urgency in his writing. For example one of his favorite words is euthys, which in Greek means “immediately,” a word he uses over 40 times in comparison to six times for Matthew and only once in Luke. It gives Mark’s narrative a sense of expediency and fast-pace. Jesus said something and immediately there was action, there was no lag time.
At the heart of Mark’s theology is the Paschal Mystery: the great mystery of the Messiah who enters his glorious reign only through the horror of the Cross. Remember Mark doesn’t even bother with a birth narrative. The cross casts its shadow over the whole Gospel, all the while the resurrection is the ultimate destination.
It also must be noted that Jesus’ teachings direct his listener’s attention to the eternal life that he has come to give them (cf. 8:35b; 9:43 & 10:30) His exorcisms and miracles point to the ultimate victory over sin and Satan and death; his healings prefigure the raising of the dead on the Last Day. He brings a new authority and that is the theme in today’s lesson; so let’s look at the events leading up to this reading.
Jesus has been baptized by John in the Jordan. The Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove and the Father declares that this is His beloved Son, then “immediately,” there’s that Greek word euthys I just mentioned, immediately the Spirit drives Jesus out into the desert to be tempted by Satan.
Afterward, Jesus calls the first disciples and then our Lord sets out with them on his ministerial travels. In today’s lesson Jesus is teaching in a synagogue and a man with an unclean spirit accosts him. The demon recognizes Jesus and screams at him: “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 [the man] and with a loud cry came out of him. (Mk 1:24-26).
By this act, Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom (v.15) becomes dramatically concrete. The reaction of the people was astonishment at his authority. In contrast to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus is not just offering opinions or handing on traditions of interpretation of the scriptures. He is teaching by his own authority and, in so doing, he exposes evil so that it can be expelled. This is a primary step in the eventual establishment of the Kingdom.
This story of Jesus’ first exorcism shows that the forces of evil are invisible, malevolent beings who are bent on destroying humans and hindering God’s plan of salvation. Through the whole of the New Testament and specifically in Mark’s Gospel, these spirits are responsible for both mental and physical maladies. (Mk. 7:25; 9:17-27)
It must be said that some scholars note that the Gospels do not always clearly distinguish between illness and demonic possession and therefore they assert that demon-possession is probably a mythological way to show a primitive understanding from a primitive people.
The Church refutes this. The Catechism teaches us that: “Behind the disobedience of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church’s Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called ‘Satan’ or the ‘devil.’ [Other names are Lucifer (light bearer) and Belezebul (Lord of the Flies)] The Church teaches that Satan [which literally means “prosecuting attorney”—the one who accuses—Satan] was at first a good angel, made by God. The devil and other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing.”…It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels’ sin unforgiveable. ‘There is no repentance for the angels after their fall, just as there is no repentance for men after death.’” (CCC #s 391 &393)
Exorcisms are still performed to this day. The Catholic Church does it right. The Catechism tells us that a simple exorcism is performed at the celebration of baptism, but a solemn or major exorcism can only be performed by a priest with permission from the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is truly dealing with the presence of evil and not a mental illness.
If you have trouble buying this personification of evil, look at the evidence. Consider racial and ethnic cleansing, millions of people are slaughtered because they belong to a particular racial or ethnic group. Look at ISIS and Bokohoran and the incredibly barbaric activities that are occurring in the mid-east and Africa. Think about the sexual abuse of children and human trafficking and the drug trade and abortion mills. All this shows more than a merely human malice at work. Satan finds the weak spot, and then exploits it.
At a personal level, we must never forget that God loves us so much that he sent his only Son to die for us. God loves each one of us without reservation. But which one of us has not heard that voice telling us three things: “You are no good. You never were any good. You never will be any good.” That’s a message that carries with it the strong whiff of sulfur straight out of Hell. That’s the message the enemy wants us to believe.
And as frightening and real as the power of Satan and his minions, the authority of Christ is infinitely superior. As St. Mark tells us and as the Church affirms, the power of the Cross and glory of the Resurrection show that Jesus has conquered the powers of Hell. For the present time however, these malicious actions of the enemy are permitted by God, whom St. Paul tells us is able to work good out of every evil. (Rom. 8:28)
In closing, as Mary Healy writes in her Commentary on Mark in the series “Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture”: The grace provided for us in baptism provides protection from all demonic forces and provides us with the strength to resist their seductive influence. (p.48)
That is a wonderful part of the Good News for us today, the same Good News that Jesus delivered to us by St. Mark almost 2000 years ago.