Today’s is a popular gospel story (Matt 8:28-9:1). All three of the synoptic gospel writers, that is Matthew, Mark, and Luke, make sure to include this story of possession, exorcism, and pigs. Most gospel stories we hear only once a year at the Sunday Divine Liturgy, but this one we get to hear twice. Once, as today, according to Matthew and once according to Luke. Some of us priests, as a result, when we see that the pig gospel is coming up again in the lectionary, find ourselves running out of things to say about it, having to preach on the subject twice a year.
But this is, as I say, a popular story. It was popular with the gospel writers and it was popular with those who arranged our Byzantine lectionary. Even today, stories of possession and exorcism are popular. Hollywood periodically uses sensationalized versions of them as fodder for horror movies. Everyone, it seems, likes a good exorcism story.
As some of you are aware, I post my writings on a blog and my most popular post of all time, by many thousands of views, is a piece I wrote called Iconography of the Devil. People are fascinated by the demonic. And this gospel story is one of the more detailed accounts we have in the gospels about a demonic possession and exorcism. So perhaps it is for this reason that it is so popular. People are eager to hear the details of extraordinary demonic activity. Curious, we are, and there can be a danger in that.
Not all stories of exorcism in the gospels are so elaborate. In the next chapter of Matthew, we read, “a dumb demoniac was brought to [Jesus]…. And when the demon had been cast out, the dumb man spoke” (Matthew 9:32-33). Notice that Matthew skips the whole exorcism this time. Interestingly, Matthew’s version of today’s story is the least elaborate of the three versions. Mark and Luke recount details about the powers and torments of the possessed that Matthew chooses to omit. In the spirit of the point I will be making, I will not recount those details at this time. Don’t you want to hear about them? Aren’t you disappointed? They are exciting and strange events.
Many of us are fascinated with evil. But evil is nothing to be fascinated with. It is our fascination with it that gives it whatever power it has. Evil has no power of its own. It has only the power that we and other beings give it. Evil itself has no being.
I don’t know how many of you may be familiar with The NeverEnding Story – either the book or the movie, but it is a fantasy story in which the whole land of Fantasia is being destroyed by what they call “The Nothing.” A little man asks a giant rock biter what he means by this “nothing.” Does he mean like a hole? But the rock biter says, “A hole would be something. No, this was nothing.” Perhaps it was unintentional, but I think that’s a pretty good description of the emptiness and non-being of evil.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa says, “No evil exists in its own substance lying outside the faculty of free choice.” Evil, you see, does not come from God, who is all good and from whom only good comes. Furthermore, nothing exists except what God creates and sustains in existence. Therefore, evil does not exist of itself. Rather, it is the absence of good. Darkness is the absence of light. Cold is the absence of warmth. Darkness and cold are absences rather than things in themselves and evil is like them. Evil is not being but non-being. Commenting on Psalm 107, Saint Gregory even refers to evil as nothingness.
So if evil is nothing, why does it give us so much trouble? Because we and all other free created beings have the faculty of free choice and many angels and humans have chosen to serve evil rather than good. To strive vainly against the light, against the day, and against God.
While evil is nothing, demons are something. And they are real. And as much as they exist, like all things that exist, they are good. That is to say, their nature, which is angelic, is good, just like your created human nature is good – but they have chosen to turn their will rather against the good – even against themselves. In The Neverending Story there is a terrible and fierce wolf-like creature named Gmork. He refers to himself as “the servant of the power behind the nothing.” This is a good description, I think, of what the demons are and of what we become if we allow fascination with evil to consume us.
It‘s important to recognize the reality that evil has servants and that many of them are powerful. But it is even more important to remember that their power is as nothing next to the power of God. Indeed, any power that they have, they have only inasmuch as God permits them to have it.
If we are living in Christ, we can afford to be dismissive of the demons rather than fascinated with them. When the devil in the form of a monkey came to torment Saint Dominic in the dark of the night, one story goes, he treated the monkey as his servant and had him hold a candle by which he read the scripture. This is the kind of power our Lord has given his servants over the servants of evil.
And it’s a good thing, because there is nothing more common than demonic activity. Full-blown possession is a rare event (although there are some indications that it is becoming less rare as more people neglect a life of prayer and sacrament and instead give themselves over to demonic activity). Regardless, there is nothing more common and ordinary than demonic activity. Demons are as low and common as a pig, making their choice to be cast into the pigs rather fitting.
The Church has long understood that demons are present and active throughout the world. It was once the practice to regularly exorcise catechumens who did not yet have the benefit of the sacramental life while they were preparing for baptism. We retain a few of these exorcisms in the baptismal rite itself at the beginning in the narthex where we renounce the devil and cast him into Tartarus. If you’ve been to a baptism in this church, you’ve been to an exorcism. It’s not so exotic as you may have thought.
If you pray the Our Father every day, as I hope you do, you are praying a kind of exorcism. We say at the end, “deliver us from evil,” but really a better translation would be, “deliver us from the evil one.” Evil as an abstraction, as I have said, has no being. It is from the being who gives himself over to evil that we need deliverance.
Listen to the prayers on Theophany over the water. We pray that the Jordan water be a destroyer of demons and immune to hostile powers. We exorcise the water and make it an instrument of exorcism.
These are the more ordinary forms of exorcism for the more ordinary forms of demonic activity which are the most ordinary thing in the world.
So, pray the Lord’s Prayer, drink the holy water, go regularly to confession, frequently receive the holy Eucharist. These are your most powerful weapons against the demons. And if you do not use them, the demons will make headway against you in unseen ways. Theirs is usually unseen warfare and they want nothing more than to destroy you, if that were possible. Let as avoid fascination with evil, which gives it power, and “abstain from every form of evil,” and immerse ourselves instead in the good.
Mosshammer, Alden A. “Non-Being and Evil in Gregory of Nyssa.” Vigiliae Christianae, vol. 44, no. 2, 1990, pp. 136–167. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1584329. Accessed 5 July 2020.