“And he called to him the twelve, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits…So they went out and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them.” (Mark 6:7, 12)
There’s not much talk about demons among Christians these days. Sure, we talk about them in the metaphorical sense (i.e. the events from our past that continue to haunt us) but even among orthodox Christians, there is often much hesitation to acknowledge this aspect of the faith, either out of disbelief or embarrassment. They are like the ghosts in the attic of Faith, the relics of a bygone era permeated by a level of superstition that our more “realistic” age has moved beyond.
However here and elsewhere in his Gospel St. Mark is clear: casting out unclean spirits is not simply a temporary aspect of the ministry of Jesus and his apostles to be cast aside when no longer believed to be needed. It is the very heart of the Gospel itself, an essential part of reclaiming earthly and spiritual territory and placing it under God’s authority. As we discussed last week, the military overtones of the word “gospel” imply the expansion of power and authority that comes through definitive military victory. It is in this spirit that Jesus sends out the twelve: with authority over the unclean spirits, so that their influence over the people might be broken and the healing, hope and new life of the kingdom God be ushered in.
There are times when this entailed (and still entails) dramatic exorcisms, as we saw in the Gerasene demoniac on Friday. However, far more common are the less obvious, yet equally powerful areas of influence that such unclean spirits wield in all our lives: the “interior war of conflicting motives, desires, passions and dreams” that pull us in different directions, tearing our soul apart (FD).
These are not to be taken lightly, as if they could simply be cast aside or rectified by our own will or in our own strength. The image given throughout the New Testament of their power over us is that of bondage and slavery—suggesting an all-pervasive, systematic dynamic of domination that cannot be effectively countered by the strength of a single individual.
It also suggests another dynamic: slavery, by nature, dehumanizes those who are held under its power. Under the influence of sin we literally become less ourselves—less human and more shackled by what St. Paul calls our bondage to decay (Rom 8:21).
Fortunately, it takes no great strength on our part to be delivered from this destructive dynamic; it takes only the cry for mercy, however feeble—for those who but touched the hem of his garment were made well (v. 56)**—and a desire to live into the freedom that Christ offers through a life of repentance (v.12).
Why a life of repentance? Because repentance isn’t just about the first time that we turn away from a life ruled by sin and towards a life ruled by Christ; it is about every time that we do so. The Greek word for repentance literally means to change one’s mind (metanoia, meta- to change; nous-mind), to turn away not just from sinful actions themselves, but from all the disordered motives, desires and passions that drive them in order that we might turn towards the mercy, healing and New Life that are offered in Christ. Repentance is about the continual choice is to allow ourselves to “be transformed by the renewal of our mind” (Rom 12:2)
Thus it is that, one by one, the power of every unclean spirit is destroyed and the shackles of our bondage to decay are shattered, and we are freed to surrender ourselves to “the Love that wants us to be fully alive.” (Fr. Robert Barron)
*Mary Healey notes that here and elsewhere in the Gospel of Mark, the word used for “healed” is the same word as “saved”, suggesting that physical healing was an anticipatory sign of salvation in the full sense.