“Jesus and His disciples came to the other side of the sea, to the territory of the Gerasenes.
And no sooner had He left the boat than a man with an unclean spirit came out from the tombs towards Him.”
– Mark 5:1
Today’s Gospel is a curious one when seen from the perspective of our present time. It recounts the story of the ‘Gerasene Demoniac’, the man filled with unclean spirits and living amongst the tombs – we are told that this poor man could not be bound, even with chains “and no-one had the strength to control him”; he was a man both feared and reviled by the community, who abandoned him to that place of darkness. This is the well-known story of the demons identifying themselves as “Legion”, before being cast out by the Lord, entering a herd of pigs who then go into a lake and drown. But before this happens, the demons call the Lord “Jesus, Son of the Most High God” (cf. Mk.5:7).
It is a curious story to us because as a general rule, our age does not believe in demons – or even in the Devil himself. Be that as it may, it remains the teaching of the Catholic Church that the Devil does indeed exist and is very active in the world, as the Catechism tells us –
“Behind the disobedient choice 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’.. The devil ‘has sinned from the beginning’; he is ‘a liar and the father of lies’. It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels’ sin unforgivable. ‘There is no repentance for the angels after their fall, just as there is no repentance for men after death.’ Scripture witnesses to the disastrous influence of the one Jesus calls ‘a murderer from the beginning’, who would even try to divert Jesus from the mission received from his Father. ‘The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.’ In its consequences the gravest of these works was the mendacious seduction that led man to disobey God. The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God’s reign. Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries – of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature – to each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but ‘we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him’.” (Catechism, parae.391-395)
Some comment that the Biblical accounts of demons actually refer to illnesses – and yet the Scriptures themselves differentiate very explicitly between healing from illness and deliverance from demonic posession. Remember, too, that the ministry of Christ was preceded by his temptation by the Devil. It is also worth noting that every Catholic diocese has – to this day – a Priest who is designated as the official exorcist.
What strikes me as prominent in this story is the reverence of the demons for the Lord – but then, demons are pure spirit, former Angels, and they are only too well aware of exactly who Christ is and of His power over them; they were in Heaven with the Almighty before they chose to reject His authority and so were cast out of Heaven. Note how they obey what He tells them, even now.
The phrase “a man from the tombs” is a startling one. We don’t expect to find the living amongst the dead. This man, we are told, “howled and gashed himself with stones” (cf. Mk.5:5), so filled was he with the evil of those spirits. Now although so filled, it is not necessarily true that this was something he chose for himself – evil often finds a way in of it’s own accord, even without direct invitation, although sometimes we do invite it to enter us. Regardless, and in spite of what demons will tell such a soul – there is always a way back. Evil does not have the last word; it never does. There are many who chose evil, who invite those demons to enter them and whose lives are transformed accordingly; but even for souls such as these, there is always a way back, always hope, always mercy. Such is the case here – at the end of Saint Mark’s account, the man is freed of the presence of the demons and, in his gratitude, asks to remain with the Lord.
Sometimes we might find ourselves looking upon others in the same way as the Gerasene community looked upon this man – with fear, revulsion and exclusion. Our reasons for doing so are varied and we may not even realise what we are doing. And yet the Lord, in the story here, did none of these things – on the contrary, He engaged with the man and brought him deliverance and healing; and in this way, He made the man whole once more.
Ours is a faith built upon redemption and salvation, given freely by a God whose compassionate love and mercy excludes no-one, whose Heart was pierced for all and not simply for some. If we profess to be Christian, then we are professing to witness a Lord who did all these things; who met with people where they were; and who spent time amongst sinners and those excluded by their society. Perhaps this is something we might do well to reflect upon.