Deut 18:15-20; Ps 95; 1 Cor 7:32-35; Mk 1:21-28
So many books and movies today highlight the presence of evil in the world. Cheap horror films are everywhere, and people have become strangely fascinated with demons. And this fascination isn’t only dangerous and sometimes harmful; it’s also misleading. We should be filling our minds with virtuous thoughts instead. And we know that if it happens in a movie, then it’s not real. It may be based on a true story, but the camera and special effects change the reality of the story. So we shouldn’t let the movies dictate our understanding of spiritual things.
On the other hand, Jesus had a real encounter with an evil spirit in today’s gospel. Jesus came to destroy the works of Satan, and so casting out demons—and undoing their effects—was a central aspect of his public ministry. Jesus’ miracles signify the coming of God’s kingdom, which includes casting out the devil from every corner of that kingdom. For this reason, Jesus’ first miracle in Mark’s gospel is the casting out of a demon.
But where do demons come from, and how did they become our deadly enemies? Well, in the beginning, God created a number of rational beings called “angels,” the Greek word for “messenger.” Angels are pure spirits—so they have no bodies—and they’re endowed with intellect and free will. After being created, they were given the choice to serve God. Many of the angels did choose this option, most notably among them, St. Michael, whose prayer is very powerful against evil. However, certain angels became evil by their own free choice; they radically rejected God and His kingdom. While it’s not certain on what particular point the fallen angels rebelled, we know that their choice was irreversible, because they don’t think, and weigh their options, and reconsider, like we do. Because of the great power of the angelic mind, it’s impossible for them to “change their mind.” “They were in full possession of the facts of the case, completely undisturbed in their judgment, and they clearly saw their obligations to God and the gravity of their crime.” (Boylan, This Tremendous Lover). Their attitude is best summed up in the classic phrase: “Non serviam—I will not serve.” And so they became enemies of God. But they’re powerless against God; after all, they’re finite, created beings, while God is infinite. So, since they can’t do anything against God Himself, they seek to destroy the image of God—human beings—created in God’s image and likeness. Fortunately, by God’s plan, the grace of our baptism protects us from demons, and gives us the strength to resist their influence. At baptism, we became adopted children of God, heirs to the victory of Christ, which He won through his cross and resurrection. But a spiritual battle will continue until the end of time, and we’re caught in the middle. So we need to cultivate a healthy balance: we don’t dismiss the presence of demons—they’re very active in the world today. But as frightening and real as they are, we don’t fear them, because the authority of Christ (in us) is infinitely superior.
The demons are powerless against Christ, and they’re threatened by His presence. And so the demon in the gospel shrieks, “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” The demon recognizes the presence of God in his midst, and he senses the approaching battle. Christ is going to challenge the free rein that evil has had over people’s lives. Jesus sternly rebukes the demon: “Quiet! Come out of him!” In one final, weak act of defiance, the unclean spirit convulses the man as it departs, helpless before the command of Christ. The demon’s tyranny over this man is ended, and the man is now set free to live for God.
Following the example of Jesus, Catholic tradition has always recognized the need for “exorcisms”. Jesus cast out demons, and from Him, the Church has received the power and office of exorcizing (that is, casting out evil spirits). But because exorcism has been sensationalized by the movies, we need to make several distinctions. First, we distinguish between minor and major exorcisms. Minor exorcisms are more common; an example of one takes place in the baptismal liturgy. We renounce Satan, and all his empty works and promises, and the priest or deacon leads a prayer to cast out the devil’s presence from the person about to be baptized. Conversely, the solemn rite—called a “major exorcism,”—is what most people think about. True demonic possession is a rare, but real consequence of the activity of evil spirits. However, this type can be performed only in strictly-defined cases, according to rigorous guidelines, and over much time. For example, they’re done only “by a priest and with the expressed permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church, because exorcism can only happen through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church” (CCC, 1673). So while it’s not a light matter, it’s not an ordinary occurrence either. And one basic rule of thumb: if you think you’re possessed by a demon, then you’re probably not.
But what confuses people is the other forms of evil which may seem like possession, for example, illness, temptation, and addiction. “Illness, especially psychological illness, is very different from possession; treating this is the concern of medical science, and should be dealt with accordingly. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it’s important to determine that we’re dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness” (CCC, 1673). Temptations come in all shapes and sizes. We’re tempted to trust more in material things than in God’s love for us. We experience thoughts of jealousy, anger, and frustration. For some, there’s even a temptation towards superstition or involvement in the occult, in which a person seeks power by allowing demonic entry. It begins as a curiosity with temptation—a playing with fire. So we avoid things like fortune tellers, Ouija boards and the like, which are dangerous to our spiritual well-being. Rather, we should rely on the grace God gives us, avoid the near occasion of sin, and strive for holiness each day. Then there’s also addiction. Obsessions like gambling, pornography, and substance abuse are destructive of human character, but they have a spiritual dimension, as well as a physical and psychological dimension” (Porteous, Manual of Minor Exorcisms, 14). Often stemming from trauma or habitual sin of a serious kind, these addictions eventually gain mastery over our lives. Sin is merely an invitation for the devil to take control of our lives. And the presence of the devil becomes stronger when human beings increasingly separate themselves from God. Through mortal sin, one freely subjects himself to the slavery of the devil. And mortal sin is the greatest possible misfortune that we can experience, because it means turning our back entirely on God. Mortal sin is death—it’s a spiritual death which cuts off our friendship with God.
But we have great hope in Jesus because God has given us all the tools we need to defeat the devil! God gave us grace at baptism, and He continues to fill us with Himself in the Eucharist. The devil fears a person in the state of grace, because grace is a participation in God’s life. So as God’s grace in us deepens, the more the devil flees—it’s that simple. So we must stay close to the sacrament of confession. Then, when we feel the presence of evil or a temptation to sin, we can say the names of Jesus and Mary repeatedly, in a loving, devoted way. “Jesus, Mary…” We can also take charge and renounce the evil spirits around us: “In the name of Jesus Christ, I renounce the spirit of anger/impatience/pride, etc. We can keep and use holy water in our homes—I always make the sign of the cross with holy water before going to bed each night. Holy water reminds us of our baptism, which is our primary spiritual weapon. Put a crucifix in each room in your home or a picture of Jesus or Mary. These are simple ways that we can fill our minds with holy thoughts. And finally, pray. The more time we spend with God, the better we can withstand the devil’s advances.
The ultimate victory over the devil has already been won! Christ defeated the powers of evil through his cross and resurrection. We just have a few more skirmishes to finish here on earth. But through the grace we received at baptism, we’ve been enabled to fight with the authority of Christ. And yes, to conquer overwhelmingly, because of Christ, who loves us with an eternal and infinite love.