In Sunday’s Gospel, we meet a man possessed by a legion of demons. Preaching on Jesus’ miracles like healing the sick, and even raising the dead, are accounts most of us can get behind. Though miraculous, even unbelievable, they are somehow within the boundaries of contemporary Western rational thought, at least in the language of faith. But when it comes to the personification of evil: Satan, or demons, we are not quite sure where to go. You’ll find yourself standing on your own in a flash at a summer garden party if you start referring to demonic powers. Might be a good week to focus on the Old Testament or the Epistle.
But if it really is so difficult to personify evil, then why is it so easy to personify good? I mean, if, with a good chuckle, we can point out that demons are just pre-scientific ways of explaining mental illness, addiction etc., should we not just as easily chuckle at ideas of God as a person?
I think the first question one must ask is this: what is a person, anyway? The best definition we come up with is: person is mystery. Do you really know your spouse? Do you really know your own self? Even Paul is confounded by his own self: “…for I do not know what I am doing.” (Romans 7:15) Personhood is the image dei. God is one divine nature, three persons. Humans are one human nature, many persons. Many unique locations of human nature. Locations with a self-awareness and free will. The underlying concept of personhood, however, is being in relationship. You cannot be a person alone.
To be a person, you must be in relationship with others, and most importantly, in relationship with God. In relationship with the Holy Trinity — note the Rublev Icon, there is a spot at the table for you! The realization of the fullness, the goodness of our human nature, as the unique person of me is found only when rooted in relationship with my creator, when I am yielding to the truth of who I am created to be. St Diadochos of Photike says, “All of us are made in the image of God, but to be in God’s likeness is for those who by great love have attached their freedom to God. “
By yielding to this relationship, I am established in my personhood.
The poor fellow in the Gospel, when addressed by Jesus, cannot even speak for himself. His personhood has been usurped by a “legion” of demons who speak in his place. He is isolated, living in the tombs, with no relationship: broken from community, and from God. His person has been “possessed,” his will—his self, has been removed from office.
A friend once said to me, “I have travelled all over the world, and I have never met an ‘evil’ person.” Lots of broken people, lots of misdirected people, lots of people who made terrible choices, lots of people who have become possessed by self-centredness, people made in the image, but a distorted image yearning for restoration, but no “evil people.“
So I don’t really have an answer. I, too, can’t really say I personally know any evil people, but I have experienced being overcome with sin. I have been separated from God and community. I have tasted what it is like to turn away from God, from others, and to find myself in dark places where even my freedom to choose has felt thwarted. I have also walked with people who live that isolating darkness to the extreme. Their persons seem to have vacated the being I find myself speaking to.
I am willing to let the tradition have the last word: person is mystery, and our journey of faith is rooted in personhood. My personhood is a journey of conversion and restoration in relationship with God. That is what baptism is all about: becoming persons. Becoming the fullness of the image and the likeness of God. There is evil in the world. How is it or is it not “personal?” The first thing we do before we pass through the waters of death and life, is this: we are asked,
“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.”
I renounce them.