Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Of Coddling Demons and Auricular Confession

25 Jun

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.

A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Christmas 24/7

29 Dec

Here’s a Christmas picture:


It’s Hopper’s famous Nighthawks painting – you’ve seen it a million times: On mugs, posters, parodies, and t-shirts. Maybe you’ve even seen it in Chicago at the Art Institute.

But there’s no Santa, no tree or tinsel, no Nativity scene, nothing Christmasy – no snow even! It’s not even winter! Nonetheless, I insist: This is a Christmas picture.

It’s a Christmas picture, I think, because even Hopper’s bleak urban vision of isolation and loneliness had to make room for light. It might be artificial light – fluorescent and cold – but it’s still light, and all light is from God. “The light shines in the darkness,” St. John tells us in the Christmas liturgy, “and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Hopper’s masterwork is like a Christmas icon: It’s an image of light conquering the oppressive night of not only the scene, but also the characters’ lives – almost a snapshot depicting Bruce Cockburn’s memorable line, “Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.” The light in Nighthawks is tenuous and seemingly caged, but hope is present nonetheless. The cafe’s rough, glaring light is a sign that God won’t give up on the lonely, crouching figures, even if they’ve given up on Him – and He won’t give up on us either. He’ll find a way to save us somehow, despite ourselves.

And that’s what the Incarnation is all about, isn’t it?

But why another Christmas picture now? I mean, it’s been over for days, right? The 24/7 Christmas music on the radio was bumped by classic rock on December 26, and they’re giving away poinsettias at Kroger for zips. Christmas 2013 is now the business of the Ghost of Christmas Past as far as popular culture is concerned. Valentines Day displays are up already – time to move on, according to the engines of commerce.

Not for you and me, though – we know better. Christmas is not even half over, and it’s a celebration that supposed to take us well into the new year and beyond. The Feast of the Holy Family today, then the Solemnity of Mary (and Jesus’ circumcision) on January 1, followed by Epiphany and the visit of the Magi five days later, and stretching even as far as Candlemas and the Presentation on February 2.

Defy the darkness and cold of winter – party on!

To be sure, it can be a challenge to do that in a culture that ceases celebrating the Lord’s birthday the very moment that Catholics start. Discarded Christmas trees are lining the streets; we keep telling people “Merry Christmas!” and they keep staring at us. Even our kids think we’re weird.sim21

No matter. Christmas it is, and Christmas celebrating we will continue, regardless of how odd it might appear. It’s essential, I believe, and not just for liturgically purist motives. In fact, it’s a rudimentary lesson in keeping alive what everyone calls the “Christmas spirit” all year long.

And that’s the real point Charles Dickens is making in A Christmas Carol – not just Scrooge’s conversion on Christmas eve, but his daily conversions the rest of his life. Dickens writes of the reformed Scrooge that “it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” Yet “keeping Christmas well” clearly meant more to Dickens than merely doling out alms and being jolly in December:

Scrooge became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.

To be credible, Dickens’ Scrooge could only have become a good friend, master, and man if he lived out his newly discovered Christmas spirit throughout the year – and so it is with us real Scrooges. Joy and generosity and kindness around Chritreestmas is all to the good, but don’t we really want them to extend on into February and April and the fall?

There’s a poignant scene in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that gets at this very idea. Francie and her brother procure a free Christmas tree for their family celebration, and they lug it up to their top-floor apartment as a host of well-wishers in neighboring flats urge them on. Later, after the festivities die down, Francie speaks her mind:

Papa, the people in the hall when we brought up the tree, the look on their faces all friendly and nice. Why can’t people be like that all the time? Not just on Christmas?

Just so, and the liturgy fosters that very perspective by stringing Christmas along for weeks. “The Church never tires of singing the glory of this night,” as the Catechism puts it. “Only when Christ is formed in us will the mystery of Christmas be fulfilled in us.”

“May that be truly said of us, and all of us!” Dickens wrote. Amen. God bless us, every one – and all year long.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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