Where would you expect to find the devil if you were looking for him? How’s that for an icebreaker for your next party? In all seriousness, though, if God were to dispatch St. Michael the Archangel to stand visibly before us right here and now and ask us where we think he should go to fight satan and his legions of demons that prowl about this earth – where would you propose would be a place for him to start? The battlefields of war between Ukraine and Russia or between Israel and Hamas? No doubt there’s a lot of evil at work there. The abortion mills where innocent human life is destroyed; the vans kidnapping and enslaving innocent life into human trafficking; the labs and factories where destructive, addictive, deadly drugs are being manufactured, which results in another form of enslaving and destruction? Those could be appropriate responses as well. Sadly, no doubt, we could probably identify many different places and scenarios where we might imagine or expect the devil to be found. Just listing the seven deadly sins of Pride, Greed, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth – it wouldn’t be difficult at all for us to name very public places and spaces that don’t even seem to try to hide that they are actively promoting those evil activities and St Michael would find more than enough work to do there.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 28, 2024. I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
But before we send Michael out there, how many of us would have immediately thought or answered – right here: in this Church, at this Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? Thanks to movies like The Exorcist and scenes like when the priest is throwing holy water and there to be such a dramatic reaction to it by the person possessed, we’re conditioned to think that just the mere presence of holy things would be enough to repel the devil. We can be lulled into thinking this is a “safe space” from the devil.
It’s uncomfortable to confront this reality, for sure. But it shouldn’t be surprising or shocking. Because here we are in the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Mark. And as St. Mark tells it, up till this, there’s been no healings or miracles. The narrative goes from John the Baptist’s preaching, Jesus’ being baptized by John, Jesus going into the desert for 40 days and defeating satan by resisting his temptations, to Jesus returning to Galilee and calling his first disciples, which we heard last Sunday. And now the next notable stop has Jesus going about 13 miles to Capernaum. It’s the Sabbath – the holiest day of the week, and they enter the synagogue: a place of prayer, worship, and study of the Word of God. And it’s there and then that the very first of Jesus’ signs and wonders takes place: the very first of the exorcisms that St. Mark will recount in his Gospel happens, as scripture tells us so matter of factly: In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit. We don’t get any other details about this. But you have to imagine that this man was familiar to the others in the synagogue. Maybe he was there every Sabbath. Probably a member of the community. Someone that people may never have suspected of struggling with this diabolical influence. I’m imagining it like those stereotypical news reporters out in front of the house of a serial killer who’s been arrested, where neighbors are interviewed and are shocked: “He was nice to me – maybe a little quiet, but he helped me carry my groceries into my house. So I thought he was a good guy.” They never imagined, let’s call him “Abner,” was possessed by the devil.
But the reality was that he was there, in plain sight, in the place where people least expected to find the devil, which highlights the truth that the devil is closer than we think. No, he’s not just wreaking havoc on battlefields of far distant countries or in those areas where his influence and action can be most clearly seen. As well-founded as those assumptions might be, this Gospel highlights the need for every one of us to be more mindful and vigilant. The devil is far closer, present, and active than we might have ever considered – including here and now.
I say that without the slightest pause, hesitation, or, more importantly, without fear. What this Gospel also reminds us of is that Jesus effortlessly dismantles the devil’s plans, efforts, and schemes in a matter of moments.
Most likely, “Abner” being possessed by the devil took a long time to accomplish. There were subtle decisions in his personal life, lukewarm responses to scriptures, cutting corners on following the law, and the tradition God had laid out for the Chosen People that created an environment hospitable for evil to take up residence there. There was a lack of focus, a lack of care over his spiritual life. There was a gradual shift of concern for others to self-centeredness, where he became more isolated and probably didn’t even realize he welcomed evil to take up residence in his life. The devil was no longer in some Roman empire official residence or Herod’s palace – he was there in Abner’s life and heart. And the devil was probably already expanding to some of the neighbors. Maybe the leaders of the synagogue were comfortable with simply being lukewarm, didn’t want to say anything that might challenge their congregants too much, “let’s just plan our upcoming Passover” or the next Hannukah party… staying on the surface, putting on the facade of faithful followers of the Lord God.
BUT This one Sabbath, one encounter with Jesus that all gets undone, and no one there is left the same. We know that because Mark tells us that as Jesus entered the synagogue and taught, the reaction was that “the people were astonished.” In the original Greek, this meant they were overwhelmed by Jesus’ teaching. It had such an emotional impact because Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, was speaking to them, things that spoke directly to the deepest longings of the human heart with authority. They recognized Jesus wasn’t saying things to make them feel better or encourage them just to hang in there. They recognized the power, the energy of His words, His very presence, which dynamically transformed this synagogue on this particular Sabbath. Their defenses were dropping, their hearts and souls started to soar, and their hopes were being raised as God’s Word was not simply being uttered – but was as it had always intended to be – alive and active.
We can forget that had always been God’s intention: that His Word was to be alive and active, which is why we had this reading from Deuteronomy for the first reading. When God first gives the Ten Commandments and entered into covenant with His people at Mt Sinai, Moses went up and spoke with the Lord God face-to-face. The people were at the bottom of the mountain as all this was happening, and they heard thunder, they see lightning, and the mountain was smoking. The presence and action of the Lord was so awesome that it scared them. God listened to their cries and promised that he would condescend to humanity – meaning he would make himself more accessible to hear, see, and receive. That’s what today’s first reading reminded us, of God’s promises as we heard: the LORD said … I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin, and will put my words into his mouth he shall tell them all that I command him” The Lord God would speak His Word through mere human beings like Moses, like the prophets.
But we humans can be fickle. Because there’s no lightning, thunder, and smoke, because mere human beings are the instruments God uses to speak His Word, we can fool ourselves into thinking it’s not that important. We can condescend to God, treating his Word as a suggestion, as an option, as something to consider, but as long as it somehow can be accommodated into our lives, opinions, desires, and passions. The Old Testament recounts over and over how many times and in how many ways that happened – and how it always resulted in devastation. This is one of those examples where there are no grays – it’s purely black and white. Whenever we turn away from God and His Word, it always leads us away from Him and ultimately on the path to destruction and devastation.
That’s why that psalm today demands our attention: If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts, we prayed. Unless we look to the Lord as our “rock,” unless we offer him thanksgiving, worship – our hearts will harden… Our faith will wane, and our doubts will grow. And we are on the path to destruction and devastation. That doesn’t always mean a demonic possession. 99.9% of the time, the devil doesn’t even need to set up shop like that in us. In fact, his preferred method is by our sinning, where we are more fully in control of our freedom and choices, and we get lazy or complacent in our spiritual lives.
It reminds me of a student a few years back. Came from a very Catholic home and background. An altar server and a lector were very involved in their parish and part of their youth group. Meeting him at an orientation the summer before the school year started, I thought, “Awesome – we’ve got this kid who will be an active member, probably one of our student leaders.” I never saw him once the semester started in August. We had emailed him and never heard back, and I thought maybe he decided to go somewhere else. It happens. It wasn’t until after Thanksgiving one day when I got a message, and he asked if he could come by to see me. It wasn’t until he walked in with his MSU sweatshirt that I realized he had been on campus for that fall semester. Although he wasn’t sure, he’d be here in the Spring. Everything was spiraling out of control. He couldn’t believe that his life had become such a mess and recounted how he knew where we were for Mass, had gotten our schedule, and was all set to join us. But that first week, there was a party. He was just going to go – not do or take anything. Then he did do and take some things. He felt so sick that the first Sunday, he skipped Mass. As he described it, it was weird because he had never intentionally missed Mass in his entire life. But he knew that you’re not obligated to go to Mass when you’re sick. But because he had caused the sickness, was this a sin? When he mentioned his theological puzzle to some of these new friends whom he had partied with – and none of them made fun of him for being Catholic because most of them were too, and because they were all nice, friendly people, he felt comfortable sharing his confusion with them, even though none of them had any inkling at all about going to Mass unless they were being forced to by his family. Well he said very quickly weeks passed by where he found himself busy, occupied, making and accepting the stupidest of excuses for not going to Mass, for not praying, and for doing all kinds of things he never would’ve imagined a few months earlier. It was only after some really awful experiences personally and among his friends, including one where someone almost lost their life, that he finally had a wake-up call and found himself back at our Newman Center. In his case, he didn’t need an exorcism. He needed to start listening to God’s voice again, and stop hardening his heart. He needed to do a thorough examination of conscience, he needed to go to confession, which is true for each and every one of us.
If we were surprised learning that Jesus’ first miracle would be an exorcism taking place on a Sabbath in a synagogue, if we were rattled by the thought that the devil could find his way into this Church at this Mass, we’re probably not even imagining that he’s got any proximity to us and our lives. Which is exactly how he wants it and likes it. But this is why the gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is exactly that – a gift. The Lord has given the Church this sacrament where I can confront the devil face to face – name the lies I’ve believed, the temptations I’ve given into, the terrible sinful choices I’ve made that have me weighed down with guilt and shame – and Jesus uses the voice of his priests to cast those things out, to wipe them away, to offer a fresh new start as we hear the words “I absolve you from all your sins.”
St. Padre Pio once observed, “The demon has only one door by which to enter into our soul: the will; there are no secret doors. No sin is a sin if not committed with the will. When there is no action of the will, there is no sin, but only human weakness. Remember this: if the devil makes noise, it is a sign that he is still outside and not yet within. That which must terrify us is his peace and concord with the human soul. That which comes from Satan begins with calmness and ends in storm, indifference and apathy. ”
As we’re two and a half weeks from the start of the season of Lent, may we begin our preparations to enter into this holy season of renewal by identifying how we might have left that door open to the devil and allowed our wills to be corrupted and manipulated by the devil. But not in fear, but confidence. Knowing that the Lord God continues to condescend to us, gently and humbly coming to us in this time and space. Unless He chooses otherwise, there won’t be thunder, lightning or smoke here. But the power, the authority, and energy of this His Word is just as effective, as in a few moments in His body and blood being made real and present under the humblest and simplest appearances as bread and wine. We don’t shudder at His presence on our altar, but we shouldn’t be numb, or treat His coming as ordinary… be indifferent to Him. Because He comes to pour His love, His mercy, and the power of His presence into our lives. May we hear this invitation and not harden our hearts.