The exorcism of mankind: sermon on the third Sunday of Lent
By a Dominican Friar | 8 March 2023
“The last state of that man becomes worse than the first.”
People often have wrong ideas about exorcism. They imagine it to be a kind of magic, as if the exorcist need only pronounce the correct formula, and the evil spirit will depart immediately. In reality, from the accounts that Catholic exorcists give of their work, we can see that their task is more like that of a gardener who has to weed a flower bed. Some weeds come out of the ground with a single pull, while with others, the gardener has to dig around them and pull with all his might, and even so, the weed comes out only very slowly. So with exorcisms: sometimes the evil influence is quickly dispelled, while in other cases, the exorcist must devote himself to prayer and fasting and even so he can only gradually weaken the hold that the evil spirit has over its unfortunate victim.
However, this analogy between exorcising and weeding fails in one important respect. The possessed person has to cooperate with the priest if he or she is to recover. And not only must he or she pray — and, if possible, fast — while still possessed; a person who has been delivered from an evil spirit must be especially on his guard thereafter, since the malice of the evil one will be directed against him all the more.
Our Lord therefore speaks to the crowd about the man from whom an unclean spirit was expelled, which later returned “with seven other spirits more wicked than himself”. But who is this man? For our Lord does not say “a man”, even though some translations have this, as if He were telling us that everyone who is successfully exorcised later comes to be possessed in a worse way. Rather, He says, “When the unclean spirit has gone out of the man.”
Some interpreters understand this as an image for Israel. This interpretation is quite plausible. We may say that Israel, as a nation, was exorcised on two principal occasions. The first occasion was when it became a nation for the first time, at the exodus from Egypt. At the first passover, when the Jews put blood on the doorposts and lintels of their houses, God said to Moses and Aaron: “Against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgement” (Ex 12:12). The gods of Egypt — that is, demons who were moving Pharaoh to oppress the Jews — were overthrown, and Israel was set free. It was a great relief for the people; a great exorcism. Yet the very fact that the nation had now been “swept and garnished”by God — that is to say, cleansed of superstition and adorned with the beauty of divine worship — served to incite the malice of the devil. Over the centuries that followed, the Israelites would invite the gods of the nations — that is, the demons — to take up residence within themselves once more. By the time of the prophet Ezekiel, some of the Jews are performing idolatrous rites in the temple itself.
Hence, Israel needed a second exorcism. This took place some six hundred years before the events in the Gospel. God allowed Jerusalem and the temple to be destroyed, and the Jews to be deported to Babylon. There, in a foreign land, in order to preserve their identity, the Jews needed to become more fiercely committed to their own Law and traditions, which set them apart from the Gentiles. By the help of God, they delivered themselves from the gross forms of idolatry that their fathers had practised, and apart from a brief lapse during the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes, they remained free from foreign deities thereafter. Yet, the demons returned in a more subtle way: too many of the Jews, especially among their rulers, became filled with national pride and self-sufficiency and disdain for the Gentiles. Hence, they came to be blinded to the fact they were themselves also fallen men in need of a Redeemer, and so, when the Redeemer finally came, some of them would blasphemously declare that He was a man in league with Beelzebub.
Yet we can also see a wider meaning in these words of Christ. For another possible translation of what He says is: “When the unclean spirit has gone forth from man” — that is, “from mankind”. This seems in fact to be the most natural way of reading His words. He would thus be referring to His exorcism of the human race as a whole: what He also refers to in the gospel of St John by saying, “Now is the judgement of the world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.”
St Anthony of the desert, in the Life written by St Athanasius, tells a strange story. He says that he was in his cell one day when someone knocked at the door. Opening it, he found a tall man, of great size, standing there. “Who are you?” asked St Anthony. The man said, “I am Satan.” St Anthony said, “Why are you here?” and he replied, “Why do the monks and all other Christians blame me undeservedly? Why do they curse me hourly?” Then when the saint said, “Why do you trouble them?” The other answered, “I am not he who troubles them, but they trouble themselves, for I have become weak. Have they not read ‘The swords of the enemy have come to an end, and you have destroyed the cities?’ (Ps 9:7) I have no longer a place, a weapon, a city. The Christians are spread everywhere, and at length even the desert is filled with monks.” In other words, the devil has been driven out of human society.
But if this is so, then the words of Christ were not only a commentary on the state of His fellow countrymen in the first century, but they also have frightening implications for us. Just as the devil gained power over Adam at the beginning, and was later cast out by the Cross, so it seems that after his long exile from the human race, during which time he wandered “through places without water”, he will seek to take possession of mankind once more, and in a still more terrible way. “The last state of that man” will become “worse than the first”. It is one thing to fall, as Adam did, but then to admit one’s guilt and repent; it is quite another to lose all sense of sin and to deny the very existence of the Creator. The second state is much worse than the first, but this is the state into which the devil seems for some time, and with increasing success, to have been pushing man.
What is the remedy? How do we keep ourselves and those whom we love from that fearful state? Certainly, by spiritual exercises, such as prayer and fasting, which is doubtless why the Church gives us this gospel on one of the Sundays in Lent. But there is also, no doubt, a good reason why the Church has included the final verses of our gospel. “It came to pass, as he spoke these things, a certain woman from the crowd, lifting up her voice, said to him: Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the paps that gave thee suck.” St Bede says that this woman represents the Catholic Church, professing the truth of the incarnation. We can also say that she represents everyone who honours the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Mother of God. In a time of increasing diabolic activity, it is more important than ever to consecrate ourselves to her.
Our Lord in His reply shows what such consecration will entail: that we imitate her. His words “Yea, rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it” are not meant to dissuade us from looking to our Lady, even though they served on that occasion to shield her from unwanted attention. On the contrary, they are an invitation to look to her, since she more than anyone heard the word of God, and not only in the Scriptures or from the angel Gabriel. She heard the Word of God speaking to her in person, since the Word was made flesh and dwelt in Nazareth. She “kept” this Word, since she served Him, looking after Him as a child, and following Him as a man. If we ask her, she will help us do the same; and that way, the house of our soul will be firmly shut against all the importunity of the devil.