The Christian world is rightly concerned about personal morality. Christians should not cheat on their spouses, cheat on their taxes nor cheat at the neighborhood card game. Character, integrity and honor have been the quest of Christian believers and the mark of Christian saints in every age. Francis of Assisi and Charles de Foucauld leaving aside their youthful naughtiness come readily to mind. The Christian community has also been involved since Biblical times with social justice. The outstretched hand of the least brother or sister has been readily grasped by the strengthening embrace of a benevolent Christianity. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac rescuing Parisian newborns and paupers have left a still vibrant legacy. And the Christian community has a proud heritage in education and certainly in liturgy, worship and prayer.
The modern world has benefited from Christianity’s concern with making this world a better place in which to live – even if secular sources often overlook the vast contribution to Western civilization made by Christians. But, as valid as the Christian concern for this created world might be, believers must remember that there is also a vast other world surrounding mankind that modern folk rarely acknowledge. This Sunday’s Gospel reminds believers that mankind is enveloped in an invisible spiritual world that is just as real as the material world so readily perceived. While there are no exorcisms in the Old Testament, conflicts between Jesus and the world of evil spirits abound in the New Testament’s synoptic Gospels. St. Mark alone makes thirty-four references to evil spirits in his brief Gospel narrative.
This Sunday’s Gospel event is quite familiar: “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? He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” Modern men and women, usually for entertainment or excitement, are willing to show some interest in exorcisms – the casting out of demons. And while demon possession is a sad but legitimate concern of the believing community, Christians underrate the devil and his minions if they think diabolical influence over mankind is exercised only through the drama and hysterics of possession.
The devil’s sway over mankind’s personal choices and the world’s corporate decisions is much more subtle than the stuff novels and movies celebrate. God’s providence gave demons free reign during Jesus’ public life to awaken the believing conscience to the reality of the spirit world. St. Paul similarly understood that human nature was not mankind’s only enemy. The Pauline community faced powerful supernatural forces as well: “Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.” These are not idle or obsolete words. The devil might keep a low profile in the twenty-first century. He usually does not shake our bed or keep us awake with loud noises at night as he did with St. John Vianney in the 1850s. But Satan is still on the prowl. And the belief that the devil and his fallen angels have been condemned to hell for eternity and therefore do exist is a defined article of our Catholic faith.
The good news, of course, is that the devil and his demons have already been defeated. Christ’s sacrificial death and powerful resurrection announce that “the battle is won; the strife is o’er.” Now it is the task of every believer to lay hold of the victory won and revealed by Christ. The familiar prayer to St. Michael might be a good place to start: St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the divine power, thrust into hell Satan and the other evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen. The power to overcome both personal and corporate evil is powerfully available through Christ’s Church. Worship, the sacraments, prayer, private devotions, sacramentals, Christian fellowship, work for peace and justice – the trappings of an active Church life are the most powerful antidotes to the enticements of the devil.