We’ve gone beyond the mid-point of Lent and so our attention is more and more focused on the great mysteries of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Therefore we hear at the end of today’s Gospel (Mk. 9:17-31) Jesus’ own prediction of his approaching suffering and death. But there’s still a long way to go, and much to reflect upon and accomplish before we celebrate fully the great Paschal Mystery of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It may be that by this time we have begun to grow somewhat weary of fasting and prostrations and the heaviness of all the penitential laments in the Lenten prayers of the Church. Therefore the Epistle reading from Hebrews (6:13-20) offers us encouragement and hope. The author was certainly aware of the difficulties of Christian life in a hostile world. He describes the faithful as “we who have fled for refuge,” and it is clear from other passages in this Epistle that our hope in not in this world but in that which is to come. He says that since it is impossible that God should be proved false in his promises to those who believe in Him, “we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner sanctuary… where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf.”
This Epistle is the only place in which Jesus is called a forerunner. We’re accustomed to think of St John the Baptizer as the Forerunner, and indeed he was—the forerunner of Christ’s first coming. But Jesus is the forerunner of our salvation, that is, of our entrance into Heaven, where He has gone before us, bearing our human nature in Himself, taking his place as both God and man at the right hand of the Father, where, as the Epistle later says, He lives to intercede for us with the Father. This is why we have encouragement and hope. The Son of God has become man and died for our sins, was raised from the dead and is exalted in the Father’s glory forever, inviting us to take up our crosses and follow Him, so that we may be where He is and share the same divine glory. We flee to Him for refuge in this present life and so are given hope for eternal blessedness in the life that is to come.
Meanwhile, we struggle with the demands of faith and discipleship—and with our failure to be everything God calls us to be—and this is what is dramatized in today’s Gospel.
Jesus had just come down the mountain with Peter, James, and John, having been transfigured before them in order to prepare them to witness his Passion without losing faith that He is indeed the Son of God. The rest of the disciples were having a hard time below, trying and failing to cast out an evil spirit, and it was into the ensuing turmoil that Jesus walked.
The father of the possessed boy came up to Jesus, begging Him to help, while describing the way in which the demon was tormenting his son. Before going on, it should be made clear that the boy was in fact possessed by a demon. Since some of the manifestations resemble the symptoms of epilepsy, modern scholars hasten to assure us that what Jesus did was simply cure an illness—one that those superstitious and credulous people, not having the benefit of modern medicine, attributed to supernatural forces. But this is, in a word, baloney.
The evangelists, while admittedly not aware of the technological advances the next two millennia would bring, still knew how to distinguish between illness and demonic possession. For example, when St Matthew lists the various works Jesus performed for those who came to Him, he makes a distinction between demoniacs and epileptics (Mt. 4:24), so the difference was recognized even back then. Also, we ought to simply accept the fact that the Son of God, precisely because He was the Son of God, knew the difference better than anyone else. If he were trying to heal epilepsy, He wouldn’t address it personally as a “dumb and deaf spirit,” commanding it to leave and never return, and later to say that such spirits can only be driven out by prayer and fasting.
But let’s return to the unsuccessful disciples and the man in turmoil, struggling with his faith. According to Jesus, it was his own disciples who were lacking in faith as well. As soon as the man said that he asked Jesus’ disciples to cast out the spirit and that they were not able to, Jesus exclaimed: “O faithless generation… how long am I to put up with you?” Jesus does not often get exasperated in the Gospel accounts, but lack of faith is evidently something He finds difficult to tolerate.
“Faithless generation.” That’s how He spoke of his own chosen disciples, when they couldn’t do what He had previously given them power to do. It seems that they were lacking not only in faith, but also in prayer and fasting, as Jesus remarked after He had cast out the spirit. This tells us that the gifts of God do not operate automatically but rather require the personal cooperation of those who receive them. They are not magical powers but means by which human beings can enter into such a personal communion with God that they can speak and it is God speaking; they can command spirits and heal illnesses with the very power of God, which works through their faith, prayer, and fasting.
The demon was having a field day with all the lack of faith in that crowd. Evil spirits draw power from our lack of faith, and that is what made the demon grow so bold as to manifest his control over the boy—and hence manifest the disciples’ failure—right in front of Jesus. When the boy was brought to Jesus the spirit convulsed him and threw him on the ground.
The boy’s father in his anguish, pleaded with Jesus: “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus zeroed in on the “if.” If? If I can do anything? And again He emphasizes faith: “All things are possible to him who believes.”
This put the man in something of a bind. He wanted to believe that Jesus could help him, yet he personally witnessed how Jesus’ hand-picked disciples could not. So, in all truth and sincerity, he cried out in words that would resonate in millions of hearts throughout the ages, who would make it their own: “I do believe! Help my unbelief!”
Like many or perhaps most of us, the man did have faith, yet he was aware that it was not complete, not strong enough to meet the severe challenge before him. There was something lacking; belief and unbelief were uneasily co-existing in the turmoil of his soul. But he at least had enough faith not to walk away despondent and defeated, so he laid it all on the line before Jesus: his faith and his lack of faith, his desperation and his hope, his need and his prayer. Jesus evidently considered the man’s faith sincere, even if somewhat defective. So he heard his prayer and cast the demon out of his son.
Here the evangelist begins subtly to point us to the coming death and resurrection of Jesus, because it is that to which all his mighty works are oriented. It’s in the language of the description of what happened after the demon was cast out. After the demon left, St Mark says “the boy was like a corpse” (first instance of death-talk). Seeing him like that, the people said, “He is dead” (second instance). But immediately Jesus “raised him up” (first instance of resurrection talk), “and he arose” (second instance). Finally, a few verses later, Jesus explicitly tells his disciples that He will be killed and then rise from the dead.
It is sometimes said by commentators that the Gospel of Mark is a passion narrative with a long introduction, because so much of the Gospel is oriented to that end. As early as the first part of the third chapter of Mark, we find Pharisees and Herodians already plotting to kill Jesus.
I wonder if we also ought to consider our own earthly lives as a passion narrative with a long introduction. Our lives ought to be oriented to the end—not in the sense of a morbid obsession with death, but rather that we should live in such a way that all we do contributes to, rather than detracts from, our ultimate goal, which is life eternal with Christ in the Father’s glory. If this life isn’t a long introduction to our death, if it is rather lived for its own sake without reference to the commandments and the coming judgment, then were going to be not only without faith but also full of evil spirits. There’s no such thing as a spiritual vacuum or a neutral zone, as Jesus said (see Lk. 11:24-26). If we are not filled with the Spirit of Christ, we will be filled with spirits of evil. If our explicit goal isn’t Heaven, we’re going to end up in Hell.
What does Jesus think about the present generation in this world, and even in the Church? Is it a “faithless generation”? We have to hear his words: “All things are possible to those who believe.” Yet if faith is not strengthened by prayer and fasting, it may prove ineffective in the struggles of this life, like that of the apostles who couldn’t cast out the bad spirit even when Jesus gave them the grace to do so.
We might make our cry that of the man who said, “I believe; help my unbelief,” and perhaps for a time this will suffice, if we are sincere. But Jesus wants us to go beyond that, to the level of faith at which all things really are possible, the level at which we can command evil spirits and they go, the level at which we can accompany Jesus to his Passion and not lose heart, not shrink from the call to share his Cross.
We can take “all things are possible to those who believe” as a divine promise. And we just heard in the Epistle that it is impossible that God’s promises should be proved false. So let us, who have fled to God for refuge, find encouragement and hope in the word of God and his grace. Let us put our faith, without wavering, in that divine Forerunner, our Lord Jesus Christ, who has returned in glory to the Father on our behalf, having endured the Cross out of love for us.
Lent is more than half over, but the Passion is still to come. Let our lives be lives of faith in the Son of God, as the Apostle said, who loved us and gave Himself for us. If our lives on earth are a passion narrative with a long introduction, and if we live them in faith and hope, then our eternal life will be an endless resurrection narrative of love and joy, which was preceded by a (relatively) short introduction of trial and struggle and endurance.
Our life stories are not over yet; we’re still in the introduction. Let us embrace faith, prayer, and fasting as the way to please God in this life, that He may raise us up to the glory of the life to come.