I am very grateful to my husband Alan, for offering to write this week’s lectionary blog, on the lectionary Gospel Luke 8.26 -39. It is illustrated by an icon of the Easter rising of Christ. Why this picture was chosen is explained below, in a note at the end of the blog.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship
In a rash moment, I offered to write this blog, and Clare quickly accepted. My offer was partly that I like a challenge, and the story of the Gerasenes, the man who said his name was Legion, and the herd of swine certainly fits the bill.
But underneath my acceptance is a nagging concern which I have felt since I worked as a hospital chaplain about those with mental health problems, and the way in which they hear scripture. There were a number of occasions when passages about casting out demons appeared in the lectionary, and without hesitation I chose to read something else in our hospital chapel services.
The reason, as you may imagine, was that I did not want to have to fend off requests for exorcisms from some of those attending from the mental health wards, some of whom already had complained of feelings of ‘being possessed.’ It is very easy for a patient with acute difficulties to imagine that they can be resolved instantaneously through some miraculous prayer power.
And so this brought me up face to face with what I might call ‘the culture clash’ between New Testament times and our own. In those times, demon possession was a readily accepted explanation for the behaviour of those who were outcasts from society. In our times, we diagnose personality disorders and behavioural abnormalities under the heading of ‘mental health issues. ‘
At the same time we have to recognise that there are some communities in Europe whose roots are in Africa, which hold to the existence of instances of demon possession, and sometimes practise exorcisms which hit the news headlines.
How to make sense of any of this? Were not the disciples sent out with a mission that explicitly included the casting out of demons? (Mark 3.15)
I don’t think we can read the New Testament without recognising that Jesus was ‘a healer ‘ and that this reputation accompanied him throughout his ministry. Through him, women and men were made whole. I think it is this concept of ‘being made whole‘ which unites the times in which Jesus exercised his earthly ministry and our own. The diagnosis may differ; the aim of lifting the burdens of ill health and mental distress from those who suffer remains constant. Jesus worked his healings according to the context of his times and accepted beliefs; he did not lecture people about Dr Freud. But his compassion went out to people and made them better. And because according to our Christian understanding his compassion was limitless, so was the range of his healing ability which he recognised as a divine gift made available through his own person.
I would not wish to minimise the gifts of other healers and also exorcists, some in our own day, while recognising the easy path to abuse which sometimes accompanies a grand reputation. There is a lot about life which is inexplicable, but a holiness of life which is rooted in the holiness of God has the capacity to transform.
However the ordinary run of things goes according to the findings of science and the practice of medicine, and for both we have to be deeply grateful. And so as hospital chaplains we may well find ourselves walking the wards, with no immediate remedies to hand for the illnesses we encounter. But we pray that we will also be walking the path to wholeness and healing, first of all treading it ourselves, and then through grace inviting others to share with us in the journey, in which burdens are eased, or the strength given to continue in the way. Jesus had the power within himself to recognise what was going on within those whom he encountered; we offer him our ministries with prayer that we will be given the discernment that we need to help others, and to draw upon the abundant source of compassion which we find in him.
A final word about demons. (They are just so hard to leave behind!) The word in Greek daimon is said to originate from the root da to divide. In the New Testament Satan is seen as the destructive force that divides, scatters, whereas the Holy Spirit brings together and unites. So in the afflicted man who calls himself Legion we see one who is radically divided against himself.
Now the ancient term daimon often had the sense of a destructive and driving force that possessed people, rather than an individual evil spirit. I wonder if you can see where I am heading? Where in our world today do see a destructive and divisive driving force killing people and annihilating what is good and what is holy? Setting Christians one against another? And so we do need to pray that the forces of evil will be overcome through the radiant goodness of God, and on this earth through the hands and feet of those who accomplish the divine will, opening the way to wholeness and healing.
Canon Alan Amos was Senior Chaplain at the Medway Maritime Hospital, Chatham, Kent UK from 1996 – 2009.
There are a number of pictures and icons specifically portraying the story of ‘Legion’. However we chose not of ‘opt’ for one of these. Instead after discussion between Alan and myself we chose the icon above in which Christ pulls Adam and Eve up from hell.
This icon is the main Resurrection icon in the Orthodox Church, and represents the Christ descending to the underworld to raise up Adam and Eve, who represent the whole of humanity before the coming of Christ into the world. This descent to the underworld is referred to in 1 Peter 3.19 , and in the Apostle’s Creed and associated with Holy Saturday.
The icon speaks to us about the Resurrection being our resurrection as well as Christ’s – through him, we as human beings are raised up to new life, not only through our baptism into Christ but also through his power to raise us from the individual hells into which we may find ourselves trapped in our lives. The gates of hell are trodden down under his feet.