We rather rarely have the 10th Sunday of Ordinary time, because it tends to be superceded by Pentecost or Trinity Sunday or Corpus Christi. This year instead we’ve lost Sundays 7, 8 and 9 because of those feasts. As a matter of fact in a couple of weeks’ time we’ll lose Sunday Week 12 also because of St. John the Baptist.
Theoretically in this Year “B” we are reading more or less consecutively through St. Mark. I always find it a bit of a jolt to pass from John, who dominated the last part of Lent and the whole of Eastertide, to Mark. But a remark of John could be taken to summarise today’s Gospel. St. John says in his First Letter: This is the reason for the appearing of the Son of God: to destroy the works of the devil (3:8).
Those works were alluded to in today’s first reading from Genesis (3:9-15). The serpent tempted our first parents in Paradise. They sinned against God, and so death and pain and all disorder entered the world. The text of Genesis doesn’t actually identify the serpent with Satan, but the book of Wisdom does (2:24), and St. Paul builds his theology of original sin on this episode in holy Scripture.
Divine Revelation then shows that the devil is our enemy. He hates us, and all his effort is directed towards our misery and our destruction. Of course in the first place the devil tempts us to sin, as he tempted Adam and Eve, because he wants to separate us from God, our only good. To reverse that work, Jesus offers the forgiveness of sin in his blood. By sending us the Holy Spirit he sets us free from the power of sin and of the devil, and he unites us with God, in holiness and righteousness.
In today’s Gospel though, the focus is not so much on sin, as on affliction. For the devil loves to attack people as he did Job, visiting them with suffering, with disease, with loss; and in extreme cases, even with diabolical possession. And Jesus, as a sign of his Messianic mission, and as a sign of what he came to do for all of us, began his public ministry by casting out the devil, or the many devils. These miracles show that Satan cannot stand against Jesus. With a word of power, Jesus rebuked him, as God had done in Eden, and he fled, and his victims were set free.
Just before today’s passage from Mark, Jesus gave his disciples also authority to cast out devils (3:14). His Church continues to exercise that authority in our own day: not only freeing people from sin, but bringing healing from affliction, and if necessary even casting out devils when they have acquired possession of a human soul.
As for the Scribes: they accused Jesus of being himself possessed by the devil, or of working miracles by diabolical power. And that, says Jesus, is a sin, or blasphemy, against the Holy Spirit. Such a sin, if persevered in, cannot ever be forgiven, to all eternity. For if we harden our hearts against the manifest goodness of Jesus; if we reject the salvation that comes from him alone; if we close ourselves off from his mercy, and refuse to believe in his divinity: who then will save us?
As part of his answer to the Scribes, Jesus offered the image of a burglar tying up the strong man in his palace, then stealing all his goods. Jesus was himself then the divine burglar who sneaked into the devil’s Kingdom in order to dispossess him of the human souls he thought he securely owned. He did that in a way that remains always astonishing to us, and counter-intuitional, and a never ending source of wonder. For Jesus freely and willingly subjected himself to the devil’s power. C.S. Lewis portrays that very well in his children’s book “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”, and Mel Gibson shows it too in his film on the Passion. The devil was allowed to do his very worst to Jesus, in horrible pain, humiliation, degradation, abandonment. But just at the moment of his apparent triumph, when he thought he had won the victory, the devil realised that he has been out-witted, out-manoeuvred, made a fool of, reduced to nothing.
Jesus utterly defeated the devil, not only in his resurrection, but also in his death. The devil thought Jesus’ death was mere horror and defeat. But no: in truth it was a holy sacrifice; a supreme act of obedience, reversing the disobedience of Adam; a definitive demonstration of perfect love; an efficacious instrument for the forgiveness of all sins whatever. By his death Jesus reconciled us to God, opened up for us the gateway of heaven, and reversed the curse pronounced over our first parents. So: everything that Satan had inflicted on Jesus became precisely the means of his undoing. The more malice he put into this work, and the more he appeared to succeed in it, the more complete was its destruction.
This mystery of the Cross of Christ, where apparent defeat becomes actual victory, and where every achievement of the devil is perfectly reversed, continues on in our world, and in our own lives. It seems that nothing has changed, but everything has changed. We still suffer and die, but suffering and death no longer mean to us what they meant before. We look around the world, and even around the Church, and we see plenty of evidence of the devil’s activity. We see him still successfully separating people from God and from one another; still inflicting maximum misery on this earth. But it all turns to ashes in his mouth. Whatever Satan does to those who belong to Christ becomes the very means for them of union with Jesus, and participation in his victory. When in the power of the Holy Spirit we suffer with patience, Satan is defeated and cast down. As for death: far from being an object of ultimate horror, we come even to desire it, as our way of entrance to eternal life.
St. Gregory of Nyssa has an image to help us understand the continuing power of the devil, even after Christ’s death and resurrection. He compares Satan to a terrible dragon. Christ has come and cut off its head. Now it writhes in its death agony; and it lashes its tail, causing terrible destruction all around. Nevertheless: it has been defeated. Just watch, and wait a bit, and you’ll see its power coming to a final end.
I want to end this little reflection with the Psalm which began today’s Mass. It was Psalm 26/27. The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? These words can be a great strength and consolation to us when we feel battered by life’s storms, whether these come from human enemies, or from adverse circumstances, or directly from the devil himself. Amid any darkness whatever I look steadfastly to the Lord, who remains my light and my salvation amid any calamity, even in face of death itself. If he defends my life, which he does, whom shall I fear? St. Paul echoes this sentiment at the end of Chapter 8 in Romans: Nothing whatever can come between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. So when my enemies oppress me - when the devil seems to be having his way - I do not lose my hope in the Lord, or my joy, or my confidence. And in heaven, all that will be perfectly vindicated. For Christ’s Kingdom will then be finally triumphant: to the eternal confusion of the devil, to our own endless joy, and to God’s eternal glory.