Sunday, February 01, 2015

The God Who Overcomes Evil

Peter Paul Rubens-The Resurrection of Christ

(4th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on January 31, 2015 at Holy Spirit Church in Central Falls, R.I., February 1, 2015 at St. Brendan's Church in Riverside, R.I., Holy Spirit Church in Central Falls, R.I. and St. Rocco's Church in Johnston, R.I.; See Mark 1:21-28)

Batman.  Superman.  Spider Man.
Beauty and the Beast.  Cinderella. 
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

What do all of these stories, all of these films, have in common?  They all represent that perennial struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.  Truth be told, the reason why we are so captivated by those stories, the reason why we will watch those movies over and over again, and view sequel after sequel, is because—on some fundamental level—they ring true. 

We certainly experience that great battle between good and evil in the world we live in.  We can see it on the evening news and read about it in the newspaper.  But even internally, deep within the human spirit, we sense the reality of that struggle:

§  We are, in fact, never more anxious, more saddened, more weighed down and discouraged, than when we have been drawn into evil and into the self-destructiveness of sin. 

§  But we also never feel more like ourselves—more peace-filled, joyful and free—than when we allow God to draw us into the things that are good, holy, virtuous and true. 

Isn’t that why you came here today?  Christ draws us into all that is good when He gathers us together here to listen to the word of God and the message of our redemption; God draws us into communion with Christ and with each other here in the Holy Eucharist.  This is the real drama that we identify in the books and the movies that enchant us, because it is the drama of every human life.

We find that drama taking place in a powerful way in the Gospel of St. Mark this weekend.   We are told that Christ entered the synagogue in Capernaum and He began to teach the people.  He was drawing them into the great story of salvation and bringing them more completely into the good that God had designed for them.  But suddenly Jesus is confronted, face-to-face, by evil.  St. Mark relates that there was a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit, and that this evil spirit began to cry out against Christ, the Destroyer himself accusing God of destruction:

“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!”
—Mark 1:24

It is a disturbing scene, in particular because of where that scene takes place: in the holy place.  We would not be surprised to see Christ confronted by evil in the street, or in some seedy place where vice flourishes; but, of all places, in the synagogue? 

At the same time we should not be surprised at all if we truly understand who Christ is.  Jesus is not simply a good man.  He is the God-man.  He is the eternal Son of God who is the origin of all that is good; Jesus Christ is the embodiment of goodness itself, and evil cannot tolerate to be in the presence of that which is all-good.    While Satan's usual mode of operation is to remain hidden in the background, working deceptively and destructively even in holy places, the presence of Jesus suddenly draws him out.  Rightly does the evil spirit rail against the Christ in that panicked moment, and especially in that sacred space.  The game is up.

But it is also true that Christ cannot tolerate that which is evil.  He is more than up to the task of dealing deliberately and decisively with this unclean spirit.   He calls the demon out directly, and commands:

“Quiet! Come out of him!”
—Mark 1:25

After a brief struggle, and with no small amount of resistance, the unclean spirit departs from that person and the man is finally set free.

It is a dramatic struggle and it reminds us of what we truly believe in our Catholic faith about God and the good.  The Christian faith is very different from many of the Eastern religions that describe the struggle of good versus evil as a battle between two equal forces.  It is not the case that good and evil “balance” each other off in some impersonal, moral equilibrium.  No, what we believe clearly is that God is all-good, as well as all-powerful.  He has power over all of creation, over all spirits, and all things.  He speaks the word of command in the Gospel this weekend, “Quiet!  Come out of him!” and it is accomplished. 

As uncomfortable as it may be to name it, what Christ performs in the Gospel this weekend is, literally, an exorcism.  He casts out the evil spirit that has possessed this man in the synagogue.  We believe in the reality of exorcism in the Catholic faith.  There is, in fact, a Rite of Exorcism in the Catholic faith, and there are priests who have used it with great effect, as effective as Jesus Christ Himself in the synagogue in Capernaum. 

Of course, exorcism is real but also rare.  Most priests have never performed one.  But there is something that Christ wills to do in our lives on a regular basis, something that is very common and very necessary.  He wills to drive away that which is evil—in whatever forms we find it present in our world and in our lives—and He wills to draw us into that which is good, virtuous and holy.  Are we allowing Him to do that fully and are we cooperating completely in that great plan for our redemption?

Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, writes in his book, An Exorcist Tells His Story, that there are two things that God does frequently among the Catholic faithful that can be even more powerful and more effective than an exorcism.  These two things may surprise you.

The first one is Sacramental Absolution.  The Sacrament of Reconciliation.  To make a good, integral confession and to receive absolution from the priest, is something that can be more powerful than driving out a demon from a possessed person.  Why would Fr. Amorth say that?  Because we believe that sin damages our relationship with God and with those around us.  Our Catholic faith teaches us that some of these sins are venial; we participate in gossip, tell little white lies.  These things are wrong and sinful, but they do not necessarily break our relationship with God. 

Mortal sins, however—sins which are serious, grave and even deadly—can and do break our relationship with God and result in the departure from what is called a “state of grace,” the beautiful bond that God has formed with us through our sacred Baptism.  “Sanctifying grace” is the life of God within the soul that allows us to live and love in a supernatural way.  To die in a state of mortal sin, having lost that “sanctifying grace,” is to put one’s soul and eternal salvation in peril.  To come to the end of our lives having committed serious, grave and mortal sins which have never been confessed before God and never truly repented from, is to risk the loss of heaven and the loss of eternal life with God. 

But in one, sincere, heartfelt and contrite moment, when we confess our sins before God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation which He instituted for that very purpose, we receive pardon and peace and the forgiveness of God restores that grace which we long for and desire above all earthly things.  Passing on from this world in a state of sanctifying grace, we are fully prepared to enter into eternal life with God.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is that powerful, that awesome and life giving.  How tragic that, in this time in which there are so many temptations and occasions to fall away from God and to forget His great invitation to eternal life, there are fewer and fewer Catholics that take advantage of that opportunity to live fully and abundantly in God.

The second thing mentioned by Fr. Amorth that is even more powerful than exorcism is listening to the word of God and its explanation through good preaching (while he does not explicitly state that the Eucharist is preeminent, it is clear from his context that he takes this as a given).  So why preaching, and why the word of God?  Amorth mentions the teaching of St. Paul, who writes in his letter to the Church at Rome:  “Faith comes through what is heard and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

It is when we listen to the word of God proclaimed, week after week, and hear that word explained and taught, that we grow in our faith and we are drawn ever more deeply into the mysteries of Jesus Christ.  We hear about Christ, who suffered and died for the forgiveness of our sins; how He rose from the dead and invites us into that supernatural life that has the power to overcome death itself. 

God draws us into that life-giving relationship with Himself and increases our faith and our conviction to live out the Gospel, to pray, to reach out in love to those around us and to reach up in gratitude, worship and praise.  That living and active faith, explains Fr. Amorth, sets up a “force-field” of sorts, like a protective wall around the treasure that is our soul.  When a Catholic man or woman lives out his or her faith to the fullest, Jesus Christ is able to drive out the forces of evil; they are not able to gain ground or take root in the place where God dwells.  There is nothing as powerful as a soul totally possessed by the living God.  As the saying goes: 

“Satan trembles when he sees 
the weakest saint upon his knees.”

How are we allowing Jesus Christ to drive away evil and fill us with all that is good in our lives this week?  How can we cooperate most fully in these opportunities to be sanctified and to be instruments of God’s sanctification in our world today?

Because, truly, we are not saved from our sins by Batman.  It is not Spiderman or Superman who died on the cross to give us the ineffable mercy of God.  It is Jesus Christ alone who overcomes the powers of evil and grants us the supernatural life to be transformed and to live like never before.  May we allow Him to drive away from us all that is evil and become His instruments of goodness and love in a world desperate for heroes and hungry for the things of God.