Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the 4th Sun. after Epiphany (Septuagesima), 2021
The season of Epiphanytide is the season of the uncreated light of God showing forth in, through, and by Jesus Christ, Who therefore is our Lord and Saviour. It is a season of great mystery, and all the episodes that outline this season possess in them this sense of great mystery—the holy Nativity, when Jesus is born of Mary in Bethlehem; the holy Circumcision when Jesus is eight days old; the coming of the Magi from the east bearing gifts that bespeak of the Child’s kingship, holiness, and death; the holy baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan which sanctifies all water and affirms Christ’s solidarity with all human beings. Likewise the feasts during this time speak to the great mystery of the uncreated light of God showing forth in Jesus Christ—the testimony of S. Stephen and his stoning; the holy Innocents, murdered by Herod; S. John the Evangelist and his mystical understanding of Christ; and the Conversion of S. Paul the Apostle, from the chief persecutor of the Church of Jesus Christ to her greatest public advocate. Running through all of this is the mystery of God causing a new light to shine in our hearts, a light which can give knowledge of God’s glory in the face of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, if we have the humility to truly seek His face.
We hear today of S. Mark’s account of Jesus’s first exorcism. It happens in a synagogue in Capernaum, after Jesus and His disciples had entered the space, and after Jesus taught the gathering, which included both His disciples as well as other Jews who were probably hearing Him for the first time. The holy Evangelist tells us that Jesus spoke with authority, and not, he tells us, as the scribes. Mark had already recorded the very first teaching of Jesus after His baptism in the River Jordan; that teaching is “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” And Our Saviour adds, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Then Mark records Jesus encountering Peter and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee, and His teaching to them was “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of Men.” But in the synagogue, Mark does not specify Jesus what Jesus taught there. So we can very plausibly assume that His teaching in the synagogue was of the same character. The message is that God is present, to turn to His presence in humility, and by continually turning to Him others can be saved because through us the world knows the kingdom of God.
This is what it means to seek the Face of Christ—that in knowing God is present (in the world, in creatures, but preeminently in our hearts), in humility we turn to Him, with faith that doing so gives the health of salvation to us, and through us to the wider world.
Yet what Mark also records provides us with a very important dimension of seeking the Face of Christ. And that important dimension is seen in the man in the synagogue with the unclean spirit; that is, the man who is filled with a demon, is possessed by the Devil. Christ’s presence called out the demon, unclean spirit from the man. This happens for us, as well. Christ’s presence, which includes His presence in the proclamation of the Gospel (what we do in Mass, for all of Mass, including the reading of Scripture, is a proclamation of Christ’s presence right here), calls out the demons in those who hear the proclamation—which of course is the case, because when Light comes into darkness, what is in darkness comes into the Light.
We see this in the testimony of Stephen, for despite seeing his face as angelic and hearing Stephen testify to the presence of Christ, Paul (then Saul) nonetheless was first provoked to sign off on the stoning of Stephen, as well as continue for some time his persecution of Christians, and do so with great zeal. The face of Christ in some sense showing forth in Stephen’s face and the voice of Christ from Stephen’s voice, the Light of Christ shined upon Paul’s heart, a heart possessed by demons, and in the process of being sanctified, firstly came out the unclean, evil spirit.
Brothers and sisters, we must always be prepared for this in our discipleship. In seeking His holy Face, in being committed Christians, we must know that the shadows in the darkness of our hearts at some point will be exposed. Their exposure will bring discomfort, and possibly some degree of emotional pain and tremor—after all, what we have repressed, to use the psychological term, is often wounds of hurt, humiliation, and loss. It is difficult to confront these, yet this process is the same as what it can feel like to examine one’s conscience before making a sacramental Confession. As the light of Christ shines in our hearts—or more accurately, as we let His Light shine, as we open ourselves to Him in humility and surrender—the dark shadows have no where to go but out. But let us also be assured, brothers and sisters, that this is all in the loving hands of the Father, and that as painful as it may seem, not only will Christ’s light truly bring peace to our previously unsettled heart, but that the world will in some sense see in us the effects of purification, this purging of the darkness from us—and that the saving Light of Christ transforming our hearts serves also to draw others to the Gospel, to the Light, to true health in Jesus Christ.