Saturday, 30 January 2021

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2021

A day in the life of Jesus will be spread over the next three Sundays beginning today. We begin at Capernaum where He taught in the synagogue as well as dealt with an unclean spirit. Both in the task of teaching and exercise of exorcism, His authority was visibly displayed. For Mark, there is a clear distinction between the authority of Jesus and of the Scribes. For the Evangelist, Jesus’ authority did not come from without but from Himself. He needed no external validation, and it is this that the people resonated with.

What lessons can we draw from the authority of Jesus?

Firstly, given the world we live in today, our attention is naturally inclined toward Jesus as the trustworthy teacher. More than ever, where integrity is in deficit, we look for leaders who are both sincere in speech and authentic in action. Consider the approach to the Covid pandemic in this country. Many, if not all of the initiatives to control the contagion are coming from the exigencies of political survival rather than the well-bring of the country and the citizens in the fullest economic, social, and religious sense. If anything, we are left with a cynical distaste for the crippling crisis we are caught in.

Therefore, a teacher or any leader for the matter of speaking, like Jesus would be fresh air and for us, a welcome change from this putrid political haze we are forced to breathe in. But, even as we yearn for true teachers, genuine ones, we may fail to make the connexion between the truth that liberates ignorance and the truth that sets free a demoniac.

What often escapes our consciousness is how pervasive demonic presence is. Again, we are directed to the type of activity we know of in movies like “The Exorcist”—the kind that is ghastly, grotesque, and gruesome with the scrapping, the snapping, and the snarling. In a way, such notions are restrictive and as such, we are hemmed in. Scientific that we are, we tend to shift “demonic possession” to a corner, a place where we can deal with—being that it belongs to the realm of the fantastic or the perceptibly unreal, scientifically speaking. So, on the one hand, we are entertained by the supernatural horror genre but in another way, it is isolated so that it does not affect us when we return to the “real” world.

The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis might just disabuse us of these ghostly images that come from our present rendition of evil. According to Lewis, Screwtape, the name of the senior Devil, is cultured. He even admires history and likes philosophy. Quite different from what we read in today’s Gospel. If we imagine the encounter between Jesus and the Devil, through our supernatural horror movie mode, we can possibly hear the hoarse growling of the Devil “I know who you are: the Holy One of God”. Then we see the Devil throw the man into a convulsion before departing. So, what is more dramatic?

But consider one of the advices given by Screwtape to Wormwood, his diabolically inexperienced nephew. Courtship is the time for sowing those seeds which grow up ten years later into domestic hatred”. Nothing dramatic about the advice. But how many couples have we known who during courtship could not live with each other but soon after detests even the shadow of the other? Of course, we do not think of this as the Devil’s work but instead explains it away as a pathology; we think in terms of neurosis, psychosis. In other words, sick in the head is nothing more than being sick in the head.

We no longer think of the Kingdom as the establishment of Christ’s rule over all of creation, visible and invisible. Instead, we think of it in rather material terms like the liberation of man from his economic or social captivity. As Charles Baudelaire, a French literary figures, in an article in Le Figaro (1864) apparently said, “… (L)a plus belle des ruses du Diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas!” More or less, it is translated as “the cleverest ruse of the Devil is to persuade you he does not exist”. And he has convincingly led us into believing that he is not there. Consider what Screwtape says, “the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turning, without milestones, without signposts”.

The separation or blacking out, in other words, the lack of consciousness on our part of the Devil’s reality dichotomises our world view in such a way that we fail to see that the education that lifts us up and out of our ignorance is surely the same liberating force that freed the man from the oppression of the Devil. The authority of Jesus works the same in both the situations in today’s Gospel. It is to our peril that we forget that the Devil is hard at work in his opposition to the establishment of the Kingdom of Christ.

It may not be fashionable to “blame” the Devil and neither should we. There is a difference between a medical disorder and an oppression. The truth is many of us may unwittingly be under the rule of the Devil. We may not be drooling or contorted but our fears or prejudices can be as shackling as a demonic possession. Yes, we should not see the Devil where he not, but neither should we ignore him where he is. The point is a mental condition can also mask a preternatural reality. Even as we assess it psychologically, we also need to discern it spiritually.

So, in summary, the Gospel reveals to us a facet of who we are. Our hearts long for and rejoice whenever we get a taste of authentic teaching or genuine instructions. However, the manner in which Christ exercised His authority over the unclean spirit invites us to recognise as well, especially in this “supernatural-anaemic” world, the subtle presence of the Devil who works quietly behind the scenes to destabilise the Kingdom that Christ has come to establish. For example, our current pandemic may come across as nothing more than a viral infection gone wild. Bear in mind the tremendous spiritual damages that it has engendered. For one, our natural fear of death is nothing short of phobic in proportion to the point that we readily sacrifice spiritual salvation in the name of physical preservation. It is this tail of the Devil that the Gospel is perhaps teaching us to acknowledge so that we can submit to Christ for He alone has the authority to free us from captivity, either from ignorance or from the reality of the oppression of the Devil.