Sunday, January 28, 2018

‘Be silent, and come out of him!

May my words be in the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Gospel reading today depicts our Lord engaged in an exorcism, the casting out of a demonic spirit from a person who is possessed. Such things to the modern mind might seem like something drawn from the world of cinema and movies such as 'The Exorcist', which was based the novel by William Peter Blatty and who also wrote the screenplay for the film. That film is, of course, considered to be something of a cult classic; and even those who have never seen it, particularly the younger people among us, will undoubtedly have seen scenes from it copied or parodied in other films or in television programmes … even though they may not realise what it is that is being emulated.

But it is to be remembered that demons and their attacks upon humanity are not merely the stuff of fiction. They are real and very much a danger to us. We see, for example, in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, how the Fall of humanity was brought about by the demonic temptation of our first parents by Satan in the form of a serpent. The final book, Revelation, has a great deal of material concerning the reality of the demonic, both in its descriptions of battles between these dark angels and the angels of light in the heavenly realms but also in its accounts of demonic predation upon the people of this earth. St Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, warns us that our battle is not against flesh and blood but 'against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.' And in the Gospels we see our Lord and Saviour on many, many occasions battling and defeating these dark powers. Indeed, before he began his ministry during his 40 days in the desert he was himself tempted by the ruler of these dark forces, the devil himself …

So by the warrant of Scripture we know the demonic to be real. It is also something the Church has known from experience down through the centuries to be a very serious danger indeed. But I do not think it surprising that most people today prefer not to think too much about the demonic. This is not, after all, a very comfortable topic – of course it is not! If it were, it would hardly be the stuff of horror movies! No, in our day to day life we have a preference that things be a little more cosy, a little more comfortable. Therefore, we will spend too much time thinking about Satan and the risks he poses to us; but we will happily think about God … and often a god made more in our own image than the one who has been revealed to us in Sacred Scripture! 

We are more inclined to think of him as a kindly old man, who forgives us our every wrong, who indeed perhaps doesn't even care much about them and instead accepts us for who we are. We are less inclined to think of what we have been taught about him – by no less a person than himself, in the form of the second person of the blessed Trinity, Jesus Christ – that he is a God who loves us, yes, but who hates sin and wishes us to turn away from it, to change and be holy as he is holy – a God who forgives, yes, but only if we repent …

We think of heaven, also … a place of fluffy white clouds … and think not too much of the alternative, hell … and, of course, we think of angels playing upon their harps in heaven … but not of their counter-parts, the demons or what they might be doing to bring us to the place where they now dwell and shall dwell for all eternity …

But picking the bits you like and leaving out the rest is not how Christianity works. It is very much an all or nothing affair. There is a reason for this. Christ is the Truth; and the Church he founded teaches the truth – the whole truth. A partial truth is not the whole truth; a partial truth is effectively a lie … and lies are the realm of the devil who is the father of lies and they help draw us closer to him.

So whether we like it or not we must face the reality of Satan, hell, and demons. And we need not fear them because, as St John tells us, perfect love drives out all fear … and God is love and he is on our side in this battle. This is why he sent his Son into the world to undo the evil that Satan wrought in the Garden; that is why Christ modelled the ministry of exorcism for us in the Gospels and gave his apostles the power to cast out demons – which is why the Church in her wisdom continues to this day to appoint and train exorcists.

However, since they are rather thin on the ground, we might do well to pray for more. And this is why our Lord, when he taught his disciples to pray, included the verse we translate as 'deliver us from evil.' What we translate as 'evil' is written in Greek as tou pon-er-ou … the Evil One – in other words Satan. Our Father in heaven hears our prayers … and will not be slow to answer this prayer, given to us by our Lord himself, if it is sincerely and reverently made.

And please remember that, even though it may come as a surprise to you, you have all already been exorcised – it is part of the rite of baptism, when Satan's empty promises are rejected, and we turn instead to Christ, and are sealed with the sign of the cross. Remembering those promises, repeating them, and remaining faithful to them will keep you, by God's power, free from Satan's snares.

And finally, as we draw near the season of Lent, the time of prayer and fasting, keep in mind the account in the Gospels of how, after the Transfiguration, the apostles asked our Lord how it was that he was able to cast a demon out of a boy and they were not; and his reply was that some demons could only be driven out by prayer and fasting. These are the very things we are called to do during Lent; and we would be very well advised to engage with them fully … for the spiritual benefits that they bring run deeper than most realise … for they not only strengthen us … but they also protect us.

As I finish, one final thought concerning the movie the Exorcist. The author of the book and screenplay of course intended to entertain. But he was also a devout Catholic who took what he was writing about very seriously … and based what he wrote on actual cases studies of exorcisms which he had researched very carefully indeed. He wrote, I think, as much to educate as to entertain. He wished to warn the world of the dangers that exist – dangers we are warned of also in Scripture - a warning I pray all here will heed: in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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