We are gathering momentum as we travel to the vigil. Looking forward to the great fire, the readings, the proclamation of Christ risen. But many of us stumble when it comes to “renouncing Satan and spiritual forces and powers” that are in the baptismal rite (BAS 154), and remembered in the renewal of baptismal vows (330). Why do we, the church of 2017, use this archaic language from a pre-scientific era?
Coming to the church from Eastern traditions, my personal difficulty was not just in personifying evil, but personifying God. If I am a person, how is God a person? Is Satan a person? I found it much easier to think of God in the platonic sense as impersonal, or as an energy or oneness of being: consciousness. The question that I realized must first be asked is this: “what is a person?”
It was not until the 4th century that we even had the use of the word person, and it arose through the church’s exploration of what it means to have a Triune God. The church wrestled with questions: how is God one and three? How is Jesus both God and man? These questions drove the church to forge the idea of personhood. One God: one divine nature, with three persons. Just as there is a human nature: one humanity, with unlimited persons. The Cappadocians—Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa, are often associated with these questions, but truly they are at the centre of patristic thought through the Sixth Ecumenical Council and to our contemporary theologians like John Zizioulas, Dimitru Staniloae and others.
Personhood is what is meant to by being made in the image and likeness of God. God is truly a person, or rather three persons: three persons in relationship. Personhood is about being in relation: freely in relationship with the other, and ultimately in relationship with this relational tri-person God, the source of being. Personhood is about true freedom, the freedom to love, even to love one’s enemies, to transcend our biological desires for pure self-preservation. Jesus demonstrates what true personhood and freedom are on the cross: loving an enemy is possible only with a profound freedom.
Kierkegaard suggests that the demonic is defined by the very rejection of relationship and communion. “The demonic is un-freedom that wants to close itself off, a solipsistic enclosedness that ‘closes itself up within itself.’” John P. Manouussakis explains: “In contradistinction to the ecstatic movement of the person in relation, the demonic remains withdrawn in this lonely prison made up by the fragments of a mirror that reflect back the self-same images of itself.”
True Personhood is always outward and relationship oriented. Consider the doxology we say at the end of the Lord’s Prayer: “for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.” Not mine. My master is not my asserting claim on the kingdom by control, nor am I asserting my own power over others, but submitting to God’s power. Finally, I claim no glory, for all glory belongs to God. It is our broken human condition, our surrender to the wrong master, that our lifelong conversion in baptism is about. We plunge into the waters and emerge reclothed in our right mind, in relationship to our true master.
Before dismissing the personhood of God or the personification of evil, ask yourself,“what is a person?” What is the mystery of your own personhood—that great interior landscape that makes you who you are? The renunciations profess with whom you are in relationship, who your master is, who occupies your life, and to whom are you oriented. What do you need to empty to make room for the fullness of life, the Word of God, Christ, to live in you?