In a recent catechetical talk about the Nicene creed, my friend Father Paul Turner was explaining the difference in the new translation of the phrase, "visibilium omnium et invisibilium." In the former translation, this was rendered "all things seen and unseen," but currently is rendered "all things visible and invisible." He sees this as an improvement. His point was, for instance, I know that my friend Gary Daigle is unseen, but I'm also fairly certain he's not invisible. Most of the time. I get this, and I appreciate the difference. But about just what is invisible that we believe God created, I'm an agnostic. For instance, are there living things like angelic spirits, and demonic ones, who inhabit an unseen world? Or rather, an invisible world? I can certainly appreciate an unseen world of mesons, strings, and hidden dimensions that exist in a real if empirically, for the moment at least, unknowable, and indescribable "place" in spacetime.
I think grasping what an unclean spirit is has some importance in understanding the ministry of Jesus, as it's fairly common to see him and the twelve performing exorcisms. In today's Gospel he encounters a man with an unclean spirit. The unclean spirit apparently recognizes him in some way. The spirit tells Jesus to get lost, that he(the spirit) is nothing to bother about, and that they have no beef with each other. And then the unclean spirit does what unclean spirits seem to do: he lies. And in what sounds like a confession, the spirit in Mark's story misleads those who hear him. "I know who you are: the holy one of God." The spirit, in other words, wants hearers to identify Jesus as the "Messiah," which in the popular imagination was a political figure who would deliver Israel and restore its former glory. In this first gospel, however, Jesus does not want this message spread around, precisely because that is not his identity nor his intention. Jesus tells the unclean spirit, "be quiet—go away."
In another encounter with demons later in Mark (5:1-20), in the region of the Gerasenes, there is a little more clarity about who these demons are. They identify themselves: "Our name is 'Legion,' for we are many." Jesus expels the demons, Mark says, into a herd of pigs, who run off a cliff into the sea. These "unclean spirits" are more identifiable — they are the occupying troops of Tiberius Caesar. In a sense, what might be called a "parabolic" sense, one variety of unclean spirit that possesses the children of God is the array of political and economic oppression that deprives them of their freedom and keeps them from achieving their communal potential.
Reading that information back into this first encounter, can we learn anything about this "unclean spirit"? Perhaps it's an idolatry of ideology, and the need that we have for God to make the world the way we wanted, to make us winners, to make our enemies subject to us. Perhaps it's anything that debilitate the individual or the community, and keeps us from achieving our potential. Whatever that may be, two things seem clear from the Gospel. First, Jesus is very terse with his command: "Beat it. Get lost. And get away from here." Second, his ability to do this impresses people, Who associate it with the divine, and disassociate it from their religious teachers. His ability separates him, makes him the subject of rumors, sent him up as a prophet.
This seems to put us about where the other scriptures today want us to be, right? The first reading from Deuteronomy describes the prophet as one who speaks God's word to people. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the temple priesthood, the palace, and the nonaligned prophets were the vectors that shaped the journey of Israel and its story for 1000 years. It is no accident that the New Testament saw Jesus as priest, prophet, and king. And whereas all three were required to true the path to God for untold generations, Jesus is God's word, God self-regulation. Jesus was God saying, "you want to see me? Look at this!"
And we who have been given Christ's spirit, who have been formed to continue Christ's mission, what unclean spirits need to be told by us to "get lost"? I can think of a couple. One is the false Messiah of political influence. It's the idea that "freedom isn't free," followed by some endorsement of violence or war. Another is any misidentification of our way of life, our economic or political system, our ecclesial affiliation, or attempt to name and claim our view of God, as our gospel demon did, as being of privileged divine origin.
The difficulty is that, in order to live responsibly after hearing today's readings, we have to call out the unclean spirits. Yes, we ourselves have been given this prophetic calling. Ever since Jesus breathed his last on the cross, being Messiah wasn't his job anymore. It's ours. The work of calling out the demonic liars, hard as it is, belongs to us.
I'm literally agnostic about "things invisible." I'm not agnostic however about the demons I can see. But I like the approach Jesus takes in the gospel. There's no battle, there's no fire and brimstone. There's just that calmly if perhaps firmly uttered sentence: Come out of him. There is the parable of "Legion's" almost humorously accommodated escape. Exorcising unclean spirits may take the form of a refusal to participate in flag-waving faith in drones and missiles; it might be years of faithful religious life as a feminist, or the public withdrawal from an ecclesiology communion because of internal policies of discrimination or systemic prejudice. The strategies of exorcism are as many and varied as the demons they seek to remove and the manifestations of Christ who remove them.
Let's keep working at it, trying to do a little better than our best, knowing that our best still may not be good, but that less than the ideal is still not bad. In the landscape so visibly full of false gods, any small movement of exorcism, and any utterance of any minor prophet, moves us a little closer to the empire of God.
Music we're singing at St. Anne this week:
Gathering: Healer of Our Every Ill (Haugen)
Psalm 95: If Today You Hear His Voice (Cooney, Psalms for the Church Year IV, GIA)
Presentation of Gifts: We Cannot Measure How You Heal (Bell)
Communion: How Can I Keep from Singing
Sending forth: If/Si (Cooney)