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Christ the Divine Exorcist

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

No treatment of angelic existence and activity would be complete without meditating on the exorcisms of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels. We must keep reminding ourselves that there are two kinds of angels, the good and the bad. The good angels are benevolent because they are messengers of God to help us on our way to heaven. The bad angels are permitted by God to tempt us from serving God and joining them in the everlasting suffering, which faith tells us is reserved for those who refuse to repent of their sinful lives.

We could reasonably classify the exorcisms of Christ in the Gospels as examples of His miraculous power. There have been and are exorcists in the Catholic Church. We must be well-trained in demonic strategy and follow the Church’s directives. Otherwise, we will not only not deliver the possessed from domination by the devil; they will positively harm the very persons we want to help and, as I know from experience, can bring tragedy into the life of the exorcist.

In theological language, we may speak of Christ’s exorcisms as miraculous manifestations of His divine power. What is miraculous about Christ’s deliverance of possessed people is the simplicity of how Christ made the deliverance, the few words He spoke, especially the immediate response of the evil ones in obeying His commands when they were told by Christ to leave their victims.

Exorcisms in St. Mark

There are more exorcisms performed by Christ in the New Testament than in the whole recorded biblical revelation. As we indicated before, this is characteristic of the evil spirit over the centuries. The moment he sees that his dominion over a people is threatened by the proclamation of the Gospel, he reacts as you would expect a devil to react. He fights back, he resists the teaching of God’s revealed truth. He terrifies the people so as not to accept the Gospel. He threatens even worse evils if the people are intent on following Jesus Christ.

Consistent, therefore, with his evil genius, the devil will do everything he can to intimidate those who are afraid of what the devil might do. This is brought out in one mission territory after another. It is always the same pattern. The non-Christian religions are in large measure under the guidance of evil spirits. We who have the true faith are not surprised at how far the devil will go to prevent anyone standing in the way of his evil designs.

Although all four Gospels give us accounts of exorcisms performed by Jesus, it is especially in the Gospel of Mark that the number of these deliverances are most numerous and most revealing.

How do we characterize the exorcisms of Christ as recorded by the disciple of St. Peter? First of all, the sheer number of these exorcisms in Mark’s gospel in extraordinary. There are more exorcisms performed by Jesus in the gospel of St. Mark than in all the other books of the whole bible put together. Moreover, Christ performed these exorcism with effortless ease. No matter how severely possessed or how vicious the behavior of the devil’s victims. The master exorcist delivered these victims by a single word or a single command.

The exorcisms described by St. Mark follow the pattern which was current in first century Palestine. The devils from whom their victims were delivered were simply called evil spirits. No doubt there possession of a person would have bodily manifestations, but the cause was the entrance of a spiritual being who dominated his human victim. These spirits are called evil because they produced evil results: harm to the body, convulsions, violence, and such evil behavior as no human being on his own could expect. It was malicious and malevolent and mal-producing as are behind a human capacity to effect.

Also remarkable about Christ’s exorcisms is that He used none of the then contemporary exorcist’s rituals or spells. He simply expelled the demons by the power of His command. We may therefore conclude to the deepest significance of these exorcist narratives in the Gospels. Jesus inaugurated the final struggle against all evil and, with emphasis, against the evil spirits. He foreshadowed the final victory over the powers of darkness.

We shall in sequence narrate just two of Christ’s exorcisms as recorded in St. Mark. They are significant for the peace of Christ’s deliverance of possessed persons produced in their victims.

The Exorcism in the Synagogue

Not surprisingly, in the opening chapter of his gospel, St. Mark narrates the deliverance of a possessed man in a synagogue. As soon as Jesus entered the synagogue, the demoniac cried out, “What have we to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Hold your peace and go out of the man.” The unclean spirit, convulsing his victim and crying out with a loud voice, went out of him.

No wonder the crowd in the synagogue was all amazed. They asked among themselves, “What is this? What new doctrine is this? With authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him. The news of this was spread immediately into all the region round about Galilee.

The Devils in Gerasa

Christ had just calmed the storm at sea and crossed through the other side to the country of the Gerases. As soon as He stepped out of the boat, there met Him a man from the tombs who had an unclean spirit. No one could bind him, even with chains. No one was able to control him. Day and night he was in the tombs and on the mountains, howling and gashing himself with stones.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and worshipped Him and cried out with a loud voice, “What have I to do with you, Jesus, Son of the Most High? I adjure you by God, to not torment me.” At this point, Jesus asked the possessed man, “What is your name?” He answered, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Now a great herd of swine was there on the mountainside feeding. The devils kept entreating Jesus, saying, “Send us into the swine.” Immediately, Jesus gave them permission. The unclean spirits came out and entered into the swine, and the herd, some two thousand in number, rushed down with great violence where they were drowned in the sea. Understandably, the swine herds fled and reported what had happened. They begged Him to leave that part of the country because of the loss of so many swine. At this point, the man who had just been delivered from the devil, begged Jesus to become one of His followers. He was told to go back to his family and tell these people about the exercise of mercy that he had just received.

Christ the Divine Exorcist

The following of Christ is the bedrock foundation of living authentic Christianity. That is why God became man. He became man so He might be able to die for our salvation on the Cross. But He also became man to live a human life on earth and thus teach us how we are to live our lives in anticipation of a blessed eternity.

We do not ordinarily think of imitating Christ as an exorcist. There are exorcists authorized by the Church who have successfully delivered people from possession by the devil. This is not the focus of our meditation. As we know, Christ is the living God who assumed a human nature. Unlike Christ, all we have is a human nature. But like Christ we share in His divinity. This, in fact, is a standard definition of divine grace. It is the participation by divine favor in what belongs by right only to the Infinite God.

As the Lord of all things visible and invisible, Christ has power over the spirits of evil which no one else can possess. But our share in His divinity, by the grace we have received from Him, gives us a corresponding share in His power over the devil. In practice, this means we are to “exorcise” the devil in our own lives by the two powers or virtues of humility and courage.

We saw earlier how St. Peter stresses the importance of humility when he introduces his description of the activity of the devil in the world of human beings. As strange as it may seem, St. Thomas says that some of the angels fell from their exalted state because they refused to accept the supernatural life of charity by which they could live together as a loving community in humble obedience to the Holy Trinity.

The word ‘humility’ is deceptively ambiguous. The humility that we need to cope with the evil spirit is the humility of recognizing our own natural inability to conquer the forces of demonic evil in our lives. It is the humility of realizing, as Christ warned us, that “Without me you can do nothing.” Without me you cannot overcome the devil. Without my grace, you are helpless against the powers of evil in this world. Without me you are hopeless in thinking you can match the evil genius of the legions of hell.

Proud people are no match for the devil. Either we cultivate the humility that comes from God’s grace or we shall be further casualties of the prince of this world.

Humility is the foundation for delivering the devil for our own lives and the lives of others. But this humility must be joined by a corresponding superhuman courage, born of grace, in dealing with the world of demons.

Courage in general, is firmness of spirit. It is a steadiness of will in doing good in spite of difficulties faced in the performance of our duty. There are two levels in the practice of courage: one is the suppression of an inordinate fear and the other is the curbing of recklessness. The control of fear is the main role of courage. It is especially the mastery of inordinate fear that we need to cope with the devil. But once again, as with humility, the courage we need to deliver ourselves from control by the devil is more than we have by our own human nature. We need the grace of God. We need not only the virtue of fortitude, but the gift of fortitude. We need to receive a share in Christ’s own superhuman courage which He practiced during His mortal and visible stay on earth.

That is why Christ instituted a special sacrament, precisely for this purpose. It is called the sacrament of confirmation, which the Church defines as a sacrament of spiritual strengthening. We are confirmed in order to strengthen our naturally fearful wills to not only not fear the devil, but resist him.

What the devil most wants is to terrify us in of following of Christ. We dare not be afraid of this prince of darkness, at the risk of being “possessed” by the prince of this world.

Mary, humble handmaid of the Lord and Virgin most powerful, obtain for us something of your deep humility and fearless fortitude. You knew from experience how to deal with the evil spirit who had so deeply entered the world which crucified your Son. Dare we address you as the Mother of exorcists since you are the mother of the Divine Exorcist in whose power we share by the grace He has so generously given to us. Following your example, and relying on your influence with Jesus, we are confident of reaching that heavenly glory which is reserved to those who have overcome the organized spirit of evil in our lives. Amen.

Dallas Carmelites, Conference #13, Wednesday 2/28/96, 2:30 PM

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica

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