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The prayers of exorcism in the service of Holy Baptism, when the Church in the one prayer laughs at the devil because he has no power even over swine, give us to know that this morning’s Gospel is an image of holy baptism. In Holy Baptism, the LORD comes to us and by the power of His Holy Spirit He sends the devils that want to take ownership of us fleeing into the abyss so that when we are raised from the font, we are like the demoniacs: clothed in the Robe of Light, which is the Glory, the Spirit, of Christ, and in our ‘right mind’ (cf. Mk 5.15 & Lk 8.35).
Here is a cue that may open to us a deeper reading of this morning’s Gospel. The Gadarene demoniacs, living in the tombs, are images of the faithful baptized Christian: ‘Suppose,’ says St Macarius (4th cent.), ‘there were a great palace, deserted, that had become full of every evil stench and dead bodies. Well, the heart is Christ’s palace, but it is full of uncleanness and wicked spirits.’ (Hom 15.33). As a result, the palace of our heart has become a tomb. ‘Death keeps fast hold of the souls of Adam; the thoughts of the soul lie imprisoned in darkness. When you hear of tombs, do not think only of visible ones. Your own heart is a tomb. When the prince of wickedness and his angels burrow there and make paths and thoroughfares there, are you not a hell, a tomb, a dead man towards God?’ (Hom 11.11, p. 85)
Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden because they had become ‘as though they were gods’ (Gn 3.23). Becoming as though they were gods in themselves, they fell out of God so that they were living outside of Him; they were not dwelling in Him. And, ‘thoughts that are crooked, that bend away from the humility of God, separate from God. Wisdom will not enter into a soul that has taken on the likeness of evil, neither will Wisdom dwell in a body that has become the instrument of sin, nor will the Holy Spirit stay when wickedness enters.’ (Wisd 1.3-5)
Eve received the word, the seed, of the serpent, and not the word, the Seed, of Christ. So it was the serpent, not the LORD, who entered her heart and ‘made himself master of the house. Sin united with the bodily man, and evil entwined and mingled itself with the soul. Therefore, many unclean thoughts spring up in the heart…..’ (Hom 15.35, p. 123)
We know from our own experience, do we not, that when we receive and dwell on unclean thoughts, they work in us with increasing force seeking to take over our thoughts and our desires until we become their slave; then, we become powerfully agitated and restless, longing to bring those thoughts forth into bodily deeds, words, gestures—like a mother giving birth to a child. And now we are become like vipers (Mt 12.34), producing destruction and misery of every kind in the anger and hatred engendered in us even as we descend deeper into guilt, shame, remorse and despair.
‘The world is subject to the lust of evil and knows it not,’ quoting St Macarius again. ‘There is an unclean fire which kindles the heart and so spreads into all the members, and disposes men to lasciviousness and a thousand wrong things. Those who let themselves be tickled and pleased with it commit the sin inwardly in the heart and thus the evil gets room, and they fall into open impurity.’ (Hom 15.50, p, 131) That is, the sin becomes incarnate! It becomes a concrete event in space-time. As St Paul says, the law of sin has been embodied in us so that our body has become a body of death (Rm 7).
Should we not say, then, that we see in the image of the demoniacs what lay in the heart of the villagers and in ours beneath all our cultured sophistication? Are we not all white-washed tombs like the villagers: outwardly, we appear to be beautiful, but inwardly we are filled with dead men’s bones and every kind of uncleanness? (Mt 23.27) Jeremiah says [in the Hebrew]: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt!’ (17.9)
So, sin has a bodily aspect, but its root is in the heart. ‘Evil,’ says St Macarius, ‘is a [spiritual] root in our members. It is a defiant and an invisible force. Unless a man sets himself to combat sin, the inward evil gradually spreads and by multiplying carries the man along into open sins, to commit them,’ (Hom 15.48, p. 130); i.e. to make them incarnate.
And we, before we were baptized and united to Christ (Rm 6.3-5), were dead in our sins and trespasses. To be dead doesn’t mean to be inactive. St Paul says: ‘When you were dead, you were walking in your sins and trespasses, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.’ (Eph 2.1-2) And St Macarius says, ‘The real death is within. It is in the heart, concealed. It is the inner man that perishes.’ (Hom 15.39, p. 125) To be dead, then, is to live in disobedience of Christ’s commandments.
But in our baptism, Christ the King came with His angels and holy spirits (St Macarius, p. 122), as we see Him coming to the Gadarene demoniacs with His disciples this morning. He healed our soul of the ‘incurable wound’ of death (St Macarius). And, we were raised up into the beginning, into the mystery of the LORD’s death on the Cross and His Sabbath Rest (cf. Rev 13.8)—and, in the beginning, we began truly to be, truly to live.
Note well: we were raised up into the beginning. We are not yet raised up into the end. And St Macarius says: ‘very few supply a good beginning with a good end. Most would like to inherit eternal life but do not refuse to live to their own wills. There is need for much faith, patience, endurance, labor, hunger and thirst for the good, and discretion and understanding at all times, for most wish to attain the kingdom without trouble or pains or sweat, but that is impossible. (pp. 42-3, 49-50)
We rose from the font like Israel from the Red Sea and from the Jordan. We still have the wilderness of this life to cross, we still have a Land of Canaan, our heart, to purge of all idols. Christ, the Tree of Life, came down from the top of the Edenic mountain to where we are and, uniting Himself to the tree of learning good and evil, the Cross, He led us back into the Garden of Eden. But, the tree of learning good and evil is but halfway up the Edenic mountain. The LORD wants to lead us to the top of the mountain in His Ascension. The tree of learning good and evil is the tree of testing, it is the cross, it is the tree of the commandment to deny ourselves and to lose our life for the sake of Christ. Our will must be tested so that, choosing obedience, we can ascend the mountain and become children of God in whom the Spirit of obedience is working and not the spirit of disobedience.
Thus, the faithful baptized Christian is like the demoniacs of the Gadarenes in that he comes out of the village of the world and descends with his mind into the tomb of his heart to train his thoughts, with much diligence, on Christ and His commandments in order to put to death what’s earthly in him—this is his perverted love for the passions, and his passions are his idols by which the dark spirits enslave him.
The demoniacs living in the tombs seem to me to illustrate what divine providence gave to St Silouan when he sought to be delivered from the demons constantly tormenting him even in prayer: ‘Keep your mind in hell and despair not.’ That is, renounce the pride of Lucifer by which you think of yourself ‘as though’ you were a god, and strive to become a partaker of the divine nature in the humility of Christ. For, following St Macarius again, ‘such a soul whose movement is truly towards the LORD’—as was the movement of the two demoniacs’ this morning—‘compels her affection wholly to the Christ with all her powers. From Him, she gains the help of grace, and denies herself and refuses to follow the desires of her own mind. In this way she is empowered to pass without difficulty through conflicts and troubles and afflictions. Her love for Christ completely saves her and makes every battle and every affliction light. Through the power of God, she cuts through the world and through the powers of evil which lay traps for the soul and use all kinds of desires to bind the soul in the depths of the world. In this way, the soul is disentangled from them through her faith and earnestness; and, through the help that comes from above, having truly loved that kingdom and having received the help of the LORD, she does not fail of eternal life.’ (pp. 46-47) Amen!