Homily at St. John’s, Lewisburg PA. 23rd Sunday After Pentecost, 10/30/7532 [Nov. 12, 2023 on the civil calendar]
Mosaic from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, from the early 6th century, of the Gospel account.
The Gospel reading today on the possessed man in the land of the Gadarenes has many elements noted by the Church Fathers. For one, he is possessed by a group of devils causing the man to identify himself with them under the name Legion. That is also a term associated with the violent power of the pagan Roman Empire, the dreaded Roman Legion. A godless mob possesses him. He identifies himself as that godless mob by name. According to the Fathers it is the demonic speaking through him saying that name. How similar to this is the temptation we face in today’s world to identify ourself with a godless mob, so to speak, whether online, or in daily social conformity, to be man-pleasers rather than God-pleasers, to be more concerned with worldly power than the power of God. The account warns us to identify with Christ unto the healing of soul and body, as our pre-communion prayers put it.
To identify with a mob of influencers or spirits, symbolized by the plural personal pronouns adopted by some in our society today, is to encourage demonic forces in our lives. This becomes easier perhaps with the hours each of us spend online. A wise older priest once told me that much of my trouble can be assumed to be my own doing as the worst of sinners. The devil is busy enough elsewhere. At the same time, though, we know that there are unseen forces. This account reminds us of that, and is an example for us to heed.
Orthodox catechumen prayers include exorcism prayers. Those prayers also can be found in the priest’s prayer book for special needs, although we are instructed there to ask a bishop for help with any serious problem of that nature.
When participating in athletics of various kinds, repetitive motion and exercise is important to train for a right response. In the same way, Church Tradition helps us to see the importance of the scriptural admonition to pray without ceasing, to prepare all of us with God’s help to handle such spiritual attacks, which the Church tells us are to strength our faith to the glory of God. This is preventive medicine, so to speak. The Jesus prayer offers a short way to do this throughout the day: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. The name of God in that prayer, and the sign of the Cross we make on our body, evoke spiritual power against demonic influence.
So do our following the daily prayers of the Church, composed by holy saints and holy tradition of the Church. We find those in the Orthodox Study Bible and in the Jordanville Prayer Book, and in other publications from Jordanville such as the booklet on Small Compline for evening prayer, and the booklet on the Prayers before Communion. Participating regularly in the Eucharist is a powerful protection, when prepared by having said those pre-communion prayers, by confession, and by proper fasting. Reading Scripture daily is also a protection, such as a chapter of the Gospel each day, and regular reading of the Psalms. Psalm 90 traditionally is considered protection against demonic forces. Those who pray help protect their families and communities too, and we should remember whenever we can morning and evening prayers with our families as possible. We can also if needed ask for prayerful help from a priest or fellow Orthodox Christian. So too the upcoming Nativity Fast is a time to spiritually re-charge, and to make plans in advance to participate in the 12 major feasts of the Church that guard our year, such as the Entry of the Theotokos coming up on Monday Dec. 4. The Church charges us with attendance on those feasts even if it involves taking a day off from work if possible.
As a clue to how evil forces may seek to take advantage of the sins in our lives, we can consider the modern phrase to demonize. It means to objectify or essentialize a person or group, and perhaps ourselves. To demonize means to create a kind of virtual reality or lie to confuse and isolate us, who are made according to the image of God, or according to Christ and in His love. Such a lie can even be about ourself. The creates an idol, a delusion. Idols can be considered good or bad by the idolatrous. But our Lord Jesus Christ calls the devil a liar and the father of lies. We see in today’s Gospel account the power of Christ over demonic forces and their lies. The man finds himself in his right mind and can go home, beloved of Christ. For Christ is the Way the Truth and the Life. It’s important to think about Truth in positive terms, not just being against something. Freedom in Orthodoxy involves not only freedom from sin and demonic influence. It is freedom to serve voluntarily the universal truth of Christ, our God Who loves us.
Every person deep down wants to live their life in the truth of His love. This is done by emptying ourself in Christ, not asserting ourself. The Gadarene demons tried falsely to offer a counterfeit sense of community, a lie of false togetherness, and lead the man to assert himself in a frenzy. Real unity and togetherness exist in Christ our Creator and in His Body the Church, who is also our caring Mother. In her there is peace.
Years ago I struck up a friendship with someone who was struggling, and God turned it into an opportunity to share Orthodoxy. This person, precious in the eyes of God, was then not Orthodox, and in an oppressive same-sex partnership with an older partner. As this friend came to learn more about Orthodox Christianity and experience the beauty of the Church, that old situation faded away and the chains of confusion and sadness with it, without arguments or debate about sinful issues involved. Although people of influence in our society, others in the community and a mob of online voices had encouraged the relationship, it involved a false identity with a group way of thinking, apart from God and His Church. Instead, that person discovered true meaning and identity in Christ, glory to God. Becoming an Orthodox Christian, while a struggle, was a source of real happiness in discovering the freedom of voluntarily serving truth, Christ, in His love. Lies and demonic influences fell away. Godless relationship dissolved. A new sense of Orthodox family became the goal in Church and home.
Glory to God, likewise I as an unworthy sinner experience freedom in Orthodox Christianity, as do many of you, and as did the man with the demon centuries ago, the account of whose healing we still remember today in the Church. God’s grace in His Church frees us from all manner of false influences, most of all from our fallen self, which Christ heals and transforms like the man in the Gospel. In daily struggle through prayer and fasting and Church participation, let’s remember that God loves us and helps. There is no other real power, just lies claiming to oppose Truth. Like Christ, who did not leave the man with the demons alone, but helped him to restore his grounding and wholeness as a beloved child of God, so let us also help one another, lift one another up, and reach out to those who have not received the Holy Gospel of Orthodoxy. This is our job as missionaries, and we belong to a mission Church.
In this way, societies can be saved too. Dostoevsky used the account of Legion as the epigraph for his novel Demons, and the central character comments on it near the end of the book. The old-professor-sinner comments that the possessed man is like the country of Russia, where he lives, and the demons that go into the swine are people like him who have been deceived. But when the exorcism occurs, then the society as a whole will be healed. May it be so in our time and land, we have our work as they say cut us out for us, but may God help.
Let us remember the wonderful gift of freedom given to us, and pray it forward with love in truth. Then we shall be in our clothes and back home. The Church Fathers say the clothes of the man at the end of the Gospel account symbolize baptism, and coming home symbolizes living in the Church, the dwelling place or ark of Christ on earth.
As St. Cyprian of Carthage put it, he who would have God for a Father, must first have the Church as a Mother. All today need to awake to our true identity in Christ, find delivery from evil memories, and as missionaries seek to share the Truth Who is Christ, because otherwise our friends, neighbors, families, and communities will not know the full truth about themselves in Christ. Let us feel the love of coming home to Him in our right mind, like finding our way to a warm lit cabin on a dark winter night, to meet friends and family, no longer lonely and afraid beneath outer turmoil and defiance, free of our chains, and loved and loving in the glow of His grace.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages, Amen.