Christ Cures the Possessed Man in the Capernaum Synagogue, 11th Century, Abbey of the Assumption, Lambach, Austria.
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All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” Mark 1:27.
Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
Looking at the 11th century fresco above, taken from the Benedictine Abbey of the Assumption in Lambach, the scene is a little scary to say the least. It looks like Jesus is stamping on the poor wretch at his feet, who looks like he’s at death’s door! The Lord’s expression does not encourage us to think otherwise. But I wonder if this might indeed be close to the original event 1000 years before this was painted. Summon up a little imagination and see the event: A man, clearly very troubled, probably screaming and ranting, talking in the plural (“Have you come to destroy us?“), must have occupied center stage in the synagogue. He was probably well known in the local community, and I imagine everyone avoided him as best they could, possibly were even scared of him. And the evil spirit, or spirits, recognized Jesus instantly, unlike the others in the synagogue, hence the question above. Jesus’ fierce look in the fresco might well have been the anger the Lord experienced at the presence of evil, especially in the Lord’s house, the synagogue. This unhappy individual was not free, proven by the very word “possessed”, in this case by something beyond his control. Throughout Scripture, time and again God defends the ideal of freedom. In the Old Testament it is most clearly seen in God’s delivery of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. Characteristics of the promised Messiah included the ability to make the blind see and the lame walk (Isaiah 35:5-6), releasing them from a different type of captivity. God wants us to be free so that we can fulfill the potential given us by our gifts, our talents. Anything which inhibits us is, as it were, unnatural. Notice also, Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit(s), and banishes it immediately after it calls Jesus the “Holy One of God”, another name for the promised Messiah. Jesus does not want that known, something he states time and again through his ministry. Why? Because the prevailing image of the Messiah at that time was more or less a military figure who would rid the Hebrews of foreign domination and restore the kingdom of David. Jesus would eventually reveal his identity, only to be crucified, but that was after his mission had been accomplished, his followers had accepted his teachings and they would then be able to spread that gospel throughout the world. In other words, a premature revelation of his identity, as threatened by the evil spirit, would have crippled him, rendered him unable to fulfill his vocation as true Messiah, would have stolen his freedom. Note also that the second reading displays the same theme, stating that unwarranted anxiety is also a restraint on our freedom.
So the concept of freedom is, I believe, one of the principal characteristics of Godhead. Anything which hinders that is, therefore, wrong, and every effort must be made to establish true freedom. Teaching in my girls’ school I made a big point out of this, as it was my understanding that they should beware of any “friend”, boy or girl, who sought to control them, hence would be robbing them of their freedom. It was not unknown for such captors to take over their lives, control who they would interact with, even hold their money or even abuse them. Some girls would even try to justify such behavior, saying they deserved it. Do you recall the scene in the movie Good Will Hunting with Robin Williams, as a psychologist, and Matt Damon as his young patient? The young man makes a habit of destroying promising relationships, springing from the self-loathing resulting from abuse when he was a foster child. Children will often irrationally blame themselves for the evil they have been subjected to. The psychologist repeats and repeats that it was “not his fault” that he was abused (be aware of strong language in that clip). Eventually the young man breaks down, the moment, if you like, when the evil spirit is expelled, and he becomes a free man. God wants us all to be free, free to discover our strengths, free to develop them and free to use them as true children of God, loving God, our neighbor and ourselves. So any hindrance to that freedom is to be confronted in whatever way is appropriate in order to attain the joy of God’s free children. Note that any unavoidable hindrance, such as being blind or lame, is, like any such impediment, not our fault, but such individuals must do all in their power to minimize such constraints so as to be free to follow their vocation. I am reminded of a British film called Mandy made in 1952. It concerns a seven-year old girl who is deaf. Deafness is a profound disability, worse than blindness in my opinion, because, left on its own, it prevents communication with the outside world. It is a very uplifting story, made at a time when such disabilities were considered shameful. Well, the story is full of hope, and one scene sticks in my memory. Mandy’s parents are desperately searching for a way to help their child. In one scene they are talking to a teacher of deaf children, and in the course of their conversation they ask her a question but she has her back to them, and does not respond. Then she turns and sees the confusion on their faces. She apologizes, and admits she, too, is deaf (she can lipread). Now it’s 69 years since I saw that movie, but that scene is the one that sticks in my memory. Here is a teacher, a person who had tackled her “evil spirit” if you like, and had defeated it, rather than let it possess her, to become a glowing example of what is possible with the true human, God-inspired spirit. Helen Keller faced even greater impediments to her freedom, also overcome, as seen in the movie The Miracle Worker. So freedom was the gift Jesus gave to the man who confronted him in the Capernaum Synagogue all those years ago, and in many ways it is still possible to defeat such devastating constraints to freedom today so that we can truly act as God’s children. Finally, this means that the vast majority of us who face significantly fewer impediments to our true freedom, such as bad habits, have an even greater responsibility to crush them underfoot and become truly free children of God.
The Remains of the Synagogue at Capernaum, Israel, Summer 2018. The black basalt stone at the base is believed to be the floor of the Synagogue which Jesus knew.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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