Our Gospel reading for the 6th Sunday of St. Luke (Luke 8:26-39) faces us, once again, with the enigmatic reality of “demonic possession.” In current terms, we are talking about evil and its potentially ominous presence in the world and yes, in the human heart.  Evil, in this sense, is narcissistic. It is self-preoccupied, self-centered, self-obsessed, self-absorbed and ego-driven. Ultimately, left unchallenged, evil can destroy the self, skew the mind, and robs a person of any Gospel virtues.  It is under the influence of evil that the heart grows numb, hard, and cold.  A casual glance at our world affirms that.

It is the Orthodox understanding that sin, death, and the “devil” (evil) were defeated when Jesus died on the Cross and was Resurrected from the dead (Redemption). As the late theologian, Fr. Stephen Happel wrote: “It seems a little un-Orthodox to give “demons” as much credit as some people do. They are not gods. They are not omnipresent, or omniscient, or omnipotent. Evil’s presence is profoundly despairing and hopelessly solitary, and best not given a place of prominence because they do not have a place of prominence in the face of God.”

While the Holy Fathers counsel us to avoid thinking of evil so as not to unwittingly invite its presence into our heart, it is tempting to get caught up in the drama of so-called “possession parables.” For example, living with the dead among the tombs, living naked, the surrealistic voice of evil naming itself “Legion”, the expulsion of evil into a herd of pigs and the pigs’ demise down a steep cliff into the ocean and the very dialogue that Jesus has with evil’s presence — while these things may satisfy a certain fascination with the strangely macabre, they are not the point of today’s Gospel passage. Something far more disturbing is behind today’s story and indeed, behind evil itself: the fragmentation of the human person.

Orthodox theologians have long settled on the notion that when we freely choose evil – in thought, word, or deed – we impair, if not damage our nature as whole, unified persons. Notice the verse in Sunday’s Gospel: “Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.”  The phrase “clothed and in his right mind” is indicative of evil’s deleterious influence over our inner nature and destiny.  Often we close our eyes to it of simply give into it.

Fr. John Behr, Professor at the University of Amsterdam’s Center for Orthodox Theology, writes of today’s Gospel: “Evil distorts the very purpose of our life. The Lord’s entry into the country of the Gadarenes was a testimony that He came into this world, to seek and save the darkened and fallen nature of humanity, because the situation cannot remain like this. Humans should not live with a fearful and darkened heart, but in joy, in love and in the light. The light is to know the goal, the purpose of our life. The purpose of our life is that we become holy, perfect in love.”   St. John reminds us: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (I John 4:18)

To yield to evil, to submit to our self-centered ego, to be “possessed” by our own needs, wants and desires – to the exclusion of the Divine Other and to the many others in our life – is to tear apart our inner spiritual unity and purpose and, in effect, to fragment ourselves spiritually, psychologically, and socially. Such a repeated tolerance of evil (e.g. the passions) in our lives can, in light of modern medical research, even have a negative effect on our biological immune system.

Dr. Robert Ader, the late Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, coined the term Psycho-neuro-immunology. This burgeoning field of medicine may be summarized as follows: positive states of mind caused by strong religious beliefs are beneficial to health. In other words, thinking positive, speaking positive, and doing positive have a beneficial affect on our immune system, therefore improving our bodily health.  Becoming unmindful of evil’s influence (the passions) over us can, as expected, negatively affect our body’s physical health (ulcers, neuroses, personality disorders, and other psychological impacts).

Evil’s (sin’s) destructive power is real, palpable, and possessive. It can cause chronic anxiety (Greek: merimna) — the meaning of which is to be pulled or ripped in opposite directions, to fracture a person’s being into parts. To choke. That is the point of St. Luke’s passage. That is why the Christian Gospel and life stand over against evil as a weapon in defense of our inner peace, joy, and love!  It is why the Evangelist St. John wrote in his Gospel’s 14th chapter: “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.” (John 14:1) Faith in the Lord Jesus is true medicine. Living, active faith is a defense against evil. The lack of living our faith daily results in hardness of heart which is an open invitation to evil taking up lodging in our souls.

It is a curious thing to see the reaction of the townspeople to the demoniac’s deliverance. They missed the point, they alienated themselves from the love of Christ. By accepting and responding to His love they would have become holy by His grace, they would have been in their right mind. But instead of preferring to be with Christ the ‘light of life’ they told Him to leave.  Evil cannot stand in the presence of the All-Good. They chose the way of death by choosing their own life instead. Their hearts weren’t pure, they weren’t upright with themselves. They saw that there was something about our Lord which their habits of life would never agree with. Their main concern was for this temporal life and their material possessions, and so without realizing they denied the one thing that is necessary, to be with Christ. Christ delights in enriching His faithful with joy. This is what our faith is. This is the direction we must take in our individual and community lives. Christ is Paradise and Paradise has, in Christ, come upon our time and space.

George Saunders, an American author and essayist, gives us a clue as to how to deal with the intrusion of evil (sin) into our lives. He writes: “That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been.  Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s.  Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place.  Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, and share its fruits tirelessly.”  You and I need to clear away everything that keeps us from our soul’s life and purpose, that threatens to dull the brilliance, clear away that which places in shadows our will, our motivations, and our ultimate imperative to “Have that mind in you which was in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5)

He alone is the Divine Liberator from sin and evil. He alone can see beyond the deepest part of our souls, into where we are afraid, confused or confounded.  He alone calls us from the “tomb” of our fear, our guilt or our shame into the stunning light of His presence where we feel the warmth of His embrace, see the horizons of genuine freedom from sin and evil, and, in His human nature, look upon the very face of God.

As with the Gadarene demoniac, there is that “secret luminous place” in every one of us – despite our past sins and flirtations with “the father of lies.”  For our part, we are summoned to a change of heart, to a spiritual transformation, to the deliverance from bondage — to conversion and a new way of living.  As did the demoniac in St. Luke’s Gospel passage, we must cast off the heavy chains that hold us back from that metanoia, regardless of the challenges and inconveniences we may face.  To do that, you and I must make a serious change of mind and take to ourselves the mind of Christ – renewing our lives in love, kindness, humility, self-sacrifice, compassion, and authentic hope. These are not mere slogans!  Only by adopting the mind of Christ can we look back and see the “tomb” near which we slept, the chains that once bound us, and look forward to the Kingdom of Heaven – the eternal luminous place!

I wish each of you the strength and determination to fight against sin and evil, so as one day to enjoy blessed life unending with our Thrice-Holy God to Whom be honor and glory unto ages of ages. Amen!

Faithfully in the Lord,
Fr. Dimitrios