No being could attain a “perfect badness” opposite to the perfect goodness of God.
~ C.S. Lewis
The Gospels are filled with weird scenes – which you’d expect from eyewitness accounts of an incarnate God. There’s no precedent for Jesus, no template or benchmark. He’s extraordinary in so many ways, so it’s no surprise that his actions and words would be extraordinary as well – at least on first hearing.
You know this from witnessing your own children thrill at the coming of Christmas when they were very young. The story of the Bethlehem invasion was fresh and exciting – and fantastic! The same goes for Passiontide as our young ones grew morose upon hearing of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, which transmuted into delight upon their discovery of Easter and the resurrection.
Then there’s us. We don’t think of the Gospel accounts as unusual anymore because we’ve heard them countless times, and we’re accustomed to their quirky narrative shifts – even if we don’t really understand them. Like Judas, for instance. We hear about Jesus choosing him as an apostle, despite his knowing (as God) that Judas would betray him down the line. The Lord even sends out the future traitor with the other apostles to minister to the crowds – what? Yet we just glaze over when we hear it proclaimed at Mass or referenced in a sermon. Yawn.
Once in a while, however, every once in a while, the Scriptures come alive again, even for us, even for me. Maybe it’s a particular lector’s voice and intonation; maybe it’s an enlightening commentary or sermon; always it’s grace.
Such a grace came my way recently as I reviewed the Gospel accounts of Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac. There’s a version of the story in Matthew, but fuller accounts appear in Mark and Luke. The action takes place in Galilee in the latter days of the Lord’s public ministry there. He and the disciples had just arrived in the region of Gerasa (or Gadara, or Gergesa – there’s some confusion about this) after a rough passage across the Sea of Galilee. A deadly tempest had terrified the disciples, but a sleepy Jesus had taken it in stride and quelled it almost as an afterthought. The disciples were duly impressed: “They were filled with awe, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?’” (Mk 4.41).
As if to answer that question, Jesus followed up his demonstration of power over natural forces with a startling demonstration of his supernatural dominion.
As soon as he and his crew hit the Gerasene shore, a wild man accosted them from a graveyard. I picture him as a combination of J.K. Rowling’s Hagrid and Marley’s ghost from A Christmas Carol – all hair and height, bruises and blood, with shackles and chains rattling about. The possessed Galilean tomb-dweller, hardly still a man, rushed the Lord and demanded an accounting. “What have you to do with me, Jesus,” he shouted, adding a confession, “Son of the Most High God?” Finally, a plea. “I beseech you, do not torment me” (Lk 8.28). When Jesus asked for his name, the wild man claimed, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”
We’re definitely in strange territory here. I see a walking stadium full of demons testifying to Jesus’ divine identity. Also, I see a tortured, lonely soul, a castoff loser and social threat, rebuffing the ministrations of the one he knows could totally heal him. Stranger still, Jesus is choosing to chat with him – or them (pronouns with Legion are tricky). But what’s there to chat about? Let’s free the poor guy from his spiritual affliction and restore him to his family already – ba-boom.
Yet, the strangeness only widens as the Gospel writers next draw our attention to a herd of pigs – pigs! a herd! – on a nearby hill. You’d think Jesus and his Jewish companions would’ve avoided this area altogether rather than risk even the slightest association with pork. Nope, and the pigs actually end up playing a central role in the tale. “Send us to the swine,” the Legion of demons begged Jesus, “let us enter them” (Mk 5.12). I envision a Messianic shoulder shrug and toss of the head, followed by the Aramaic equivalent of “Why not?” before Jesus gives in to the odd petition. “Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine,” continues St. Luke, “and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned” (8.33).
The Gospel narratives move on to the swift reaction of the swineherds and local townspeople (they “were seized with great fear” and asked Jesus to “depart from them”), as well as the equally swift recovery and commissioning of Legion (whom Jesus sent home to proclaim “how much the Lord has done for you”). But I’m stuck back on that hillside. “The demons puzzle us,” writes Frank Sheed. “The pigs puzzle us.” Right, as does Jesus himself, for it seems to me that he took pity on those demons when he acceded to their request. Was the porcine possession a show of compassion for the hellish habitués? A bizarre amnesty, no matter how fleeting, granted by the Good Shepherd himself? I’m with Sheed who comments, “We long to read deeper into the mind of our Redeemer.”
Frankly, I’m also interested in reading deeper into the minds of those devils. They must’ve known that they were still destined to return to Hell eventually, for even if their pig-hosts hadn’t immediately rushed to a watery demise, they would’ve been butchered soon enough. Since Legion’s demons had no doubt about who and what Jesus was (and is), what could’ve motivated their plea for temporary clemency? Surely not love – but…hope? Is it possible that these damned creatures were displaying a last vestige of hope, however unlikely?
We’ll never know. What we do know, however, is that the graphic transfer of Legion’s burden to the doomed pigs was a stark display of release and liberation. Perhaps, as Jerome Kodell suggests, it was meant to broadcast Legion’s fresh start, providing his community “visible proof that the demons have left the man.” Granted it required significant destruction of property (which prompted the objections of those swineherds), yet maybe such was justified in order to reassure Legion’s people of his radical transformation – and even Legion himself.
Weird as it is, I think the pig-demon transfer in this Gospel story is a valuable illustration of why we have auricular confession. As the Catechism affirms, the sacrament of reconciliation requires the penitent to be contrite, practice humility, and “confess with the lips” (CCC 1450). Certainly there are exceptions – speech impairments, for example, and extreme debilitation – but ordinarily, in “accord with the law and practice of the Church, the faithful must orally confess their sins” (Congregation for Divine Worship). It follows that the confessor must ordinarily hear those sins and voice an absolution.
“But why do you have to confess your sins out loud?” my Protestant students often ask me. “Why can’t you just confess them directly to God – in private? Or just write them down?”
Next time I get that question, I’ll have a ready answer. “Because we’re Legion,” I’ll say. “Because our sins are like demons, and we need concrete, sensory reassurance that they’ve been excised from our souls.”
When I confess my sins, as humiliating as it is, I’m always glad to be getting them out of my head and into the open air. To hear myself pronounce my self-accusations, knowing that the alter Christus is craning an ear, means that my sins are gone, they’ve been sent over the confessional cliff, and they’re drowning in grace – what a relief!
Then it’s my turn to listen, and the priest’s verbal funneling of the Lord’s forgiveness is an electrifying largesse (CCC 1465). It’s a new beginning, every time. And every time, I’m sent out unburdened after my penitential encounter, but with an implicit (sometimes explicit) commission, similar to Legion’s: “Go in peace,” the priest may intone, “and proclaim to the world the wonderful works of God who has brought you salvation.”
They’re words I never tire of hearing, and the strange mercy they bespeak never grows old.