We have probably all been surprised at some point by a family member, friend, or acquaintance who behaved out of character. We get to know people and have some idea of who they are, but then they say or do something that makes us wonder if we really know them. If we are honest, we will acknowledge that the same is true of each of us. We say, do, and think things that surprise even ourselves. Sometimes we handle a problem or respond to a temptation better than we thought we would, but so often our actions reveal a brokenness that we do not like to see. That is why we can so quickly become defensive when others see our weaknesses, and especially when they point them out.
In today’s gospel reading we read about a man whose situation was beyond miserable. He surely had no illusions about himself, for he was so filled with demons that he called himself “Legion.” His personality had disintegrated due to the power of the forces of evil in his life. That is shown by the fact that he was naked, like Adam and Eve who stripped themselves of the divine glory and were cast out of Paradise into our world of corruption. He lived among the tombs, and death is “the wages of sin” that came into the world as a consequence of our first parents’ refusal to fulfill their calling to become like God in holiness. This naked man living in the cemetery was so terrifying to others that they tried unsuccessfully to restrain him with chains. People understandably feared that he would do to them what Cain had done to Abel. But when this fellow broke free, he would run off to the desert by himself, alone with his demons. In the Gadarene demoniac we have a vivid icon of the pathetic suffering of humanity enslaved to death, naked of the divine glory, and isolated in fear from loving relationships with others.
Evil was so firmly planted in this man’s soul that his reaction to the Lord’s command for the demons to leave him was “What have you to do with me?...I ask you, do not torment me.” His brokenness was such that he had no hope for healing and perceived Christ’s promise of deliverance simply as pain. By telling the Lord that his name was Legion, he was acknowledging that the line between the demons and his own identity had been blurred. He was in such bad shape that it was not clear where he ended and where the demons began. The Savior then cast the demons into the herd of pigs, who ran into the lake and drowned. In the Old Testament context, pigs were unclean, and here the forces of evil lead even them into death.
Perhaps there is no clearer image of human brokenness in need of the healing of Christ than this miserable man. He represents us all in many ways. He did not ask Christ to deliver him, even as we did not take the initiative in Christ's coming to save sinners. The corrupting forces of evil were so powerful in his life that he had lost any sense of what it meant to be someone in God’s image and likeness. Whenever we are driven by our distorted self-centered desires, we think, speak, and act similarly. We too are often so wedded to our favorite sins that, like him, we would rather that Christ leave us alone than that He set us free. We are often so weak and confused that we fear His healing mercy will torment us, for we have lost all hope of being set free from them. We are afraid of what life would be like without them.
After the spectacular drowning of the swine, the man in question was “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” The one who had not been recognizably human returned to being his true self, was back in society, and was learning from the One Who had set him free. That was very disturbing, however, to the people of that region. In fact, they asked Christ to leave out of fear at what had happened. We may find their reaction hard to understand. What could be so terrifying about this man returning to a normal life? Unfortunately, we all tend to get used to whatever we get used to. What we have experienced in ourselves or in others becomes normal to us. Even as the scary man in the tombs was afraid when Christ came to set Him free, his neighbors were afraid when they saw that he had changed.
It is no surprise, then, that the man formerly possessed by demons and still feared by his neighbors did not want to stay in his hometown after the Lord restored him. He begged to go with Christ, Who responded, “Return to your home, and declare all that God has done for you.” That must have been a difficult commandment for him to obey. Who would not be embarrassed and afraid to live in a town where everyone knew about the wretched and miserable existence he had experienced? It would have been much easier to have left all that behind and start over as a traveling disciple of the One who had set him free.
But that was not what Christ wanted the man to do. Perhaps that was because the Lord knew that the best witness to His transforming power was a person who had been healed from the worst forms of depravity and corruption. Why should people believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world? Surely, the lives of His followers must bear witness to His power in order to convince them. When someone moves from slavery to the glorious freedom of the children of God, that person has moved from death to life. Such a radical change is a sign of the truth of Christ’s resurrection, for He makes us participants in His victory over death by breaking the destructive hold of the power of sin in our lives.
Our Lord makes it possible for us to become our true selves in Him, the Second Adam. That means being united with Him in holiness such that, by His gracious mercy, we become “partakers of the divine nature” who fulfill humanity’s original vocation to become like God in holiness. He has overcome our nakedness by clothing us in a robe of light in baptism, filled us with the Holy Spirit in Chrismation, and nourished us with His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist. He Himself forgives and restores us through Confession and repentance. Our Lord is even more present to us than He was to the man in today’s gospel lesson, for He has made us members of His own Body and dwells in our hearts.
Our challenge, then, is not to ask Him to go away out of fear that He will torment us. Sin only has the power in our lives that we allow it to have, and we all have a long, challenging journey to turn away from it. Nonetheless, we must take the small steps of which we are capable to turn our hearts more fully toward God through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and all the basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian life. When we fail, we must use our weakness to grow in constant dependence on the Lord’s mercy and strength. We cannot save ourselves by our own power any more than the man could cast out his own demons.
We may be as terrified to think about life without our favorite sins as the man’s neighbors were to see him in his right mind. Sharing more fully in Christ’s victory over death will always be terrifying in a sense, for we must die to sin in order to rise up with Him in holiness. His Kingdom is not of this world and we must crucify the distortions of our souls that have become so familiar to us. When the struggle is hard and we want to give up, remember the difference between a naked and isolated person out of his mind due to the power of evil in his soul and that person “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” That is really what is at stake in the question of whether we will do all that we can to welcome the Lord’s healing presence in our lives or run away from Him in fear. May He grant us all the wisdom and strength to choose blessedness over despair, to choose life over death.