Monday, February 1, 2010

St. Ansgar (801-865)

The "apostle of the north" (Scandinavia) had enough frustrations to become a saint—and he did. He became a Benedictine at Corbie, France, where he had been educated. Three years later, when the king of Denmark became a convert, Ansgar went to that country for three years of missionary work, without noticeable success. Sweden asked for Christian missionaries, and he went there, suffering capture by pirates and other hardships on the way. Less than two years later he was recalled, to become abbot of New Corbie (Corvey) and bishop of Hamburg. The pope made him legate for the Scandinavian missions. Funds for the northern apostolate stopped with Emperor Louis’s death. After 13 years’ work in Hamburg, Ansgar saw it burned to the ground by invading Northmen; Sweden and Denmark returned to paganism. He directed new apostolic activities in the North, travelling to Denmark and being instrumental in the conversion of another king. By the strange device of casting lots, the king of Sweden allowed the Christian missionaries to return. Ansgar’s biographers remark that he was an extraordinary preacher, a humble and ascetical priest. He was devoted to the poor and the sick, imitating the Lord in washing their feet and waiting on them at table. He died peacefully at Bremen, Germany, without achieving his wish to be a martyr. Sweden became pagan again after his death, and remained so until the coming of missionaries two centuries later.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Mark (5: 1-20)

Jesus and his disciples crossed the sea to the country of the Gerasenes. As he stepped out of the boat, immediately there came to him from the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He had been dwelling in the tombs and no one could now restrain him, not even with chains. Having been often bound with fetters and chains he had burst the chains and broken the fetters in pieces. No one could tame him. He was always day and night among the tombs in the mountains crying and cutting himself with stones. Seeing Jesus afar off he ran and reverenced him. Crying out with a loud voice he said, "What have I to do with you, Jesus the Son of the most high God? I adjure you by God that you not torment me." For he said to him, "Go out of the man, you unclean spirit." And he asked him, "What is your name?" He said to him, "My name is Legion, for we are many." He besought him repeatedly that he would not drive him away out of the country. There was there near the mountain a great herd of swine, feeding. The spirits besought him saying, "Send us into the swine that we may enter them." Jesus immediately gave them leave. The unclean spirits going out entered the swine, and the two thousand or so herd with great violence was swept headlong into the sea and there were drowned. Those who looked after them fled and told everything in the city and in the fields. The inhabitants went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus and saw the one who had been possessed sitting, clothed, and mentally recovered, they were afraid. Those who had witnessed everything recounted it to all, explaining what had happened to the possessed man and to the swine. At that, they began asking him to leave their district. When he went into the boat, the one who had been possessed began to implore Jesus that he might remain with him. But Jesus would not permit it, and told him, "Go to your house and to your friends, and tell them how great have been the things the Lord has done for you and his mercy towards you." He went his way and began to broadcast in the Decapolis the great things Jesus had done for him. Everyone marvelled.

The demons
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

Despite the great continuity between the Old and New Testaments, there are striking differences. The New Testament is a development from the Old, but as a divine revelation it is also a leap ahead from it. Numerous examples could be given of the differences — most notably those directly connected with the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. There is no man in the Old Testament who is the direct Object and Focus of religion. All the figures of the Old Testament point, of course, to Yahweh God as the Object of religion. But in the New Testament, Jesus Christ is the Object and Focus. He is the revelation of the Father, and in seeing him we see the Father. He is the only way to the Father, and he is the Way, the Truth and the Life. But apart from the person of Jesus himself, there are other differences too. One is the open manifestation in the Gospels of the demonic world. Where in the Old Testament is to be found the equivalent of the confrontation between Christ and the demons that we read in our Gospel today? Satan appears at the beginning in the Book of Genesis (ch.3), presenting himself as a friend of the woman. He acts as a marketer of pride and rebellion, and with Eve he makes an immediate sale. He is the Deceiver who brings sin and death. But in the Old Testament he is barely mentioned. There is a mention in Zechariah 3:1-2, and again in 1 Chronicles 21:1, but apart from that the main source is the Book of Job. Satan is allowed by God to bring on Job’s afflictions and this in order to prove his fidelity to God. Beyond that book, the Old Testament is largely silent. None of the patriarchs or great prophets openly confront him and there is no formal contest with what Christ calls the Prince of this world. But once Christ appears on the scene, the battle is joined in open fashion. On the threshold of his ministry and while fasting in the wilderness, Christ is formally approached by Satan. Negotiations are brought on by the Fiend, but they break down utterly. He can gain no foothold and is sent packing. He thereupon knows that he has before him One whose like he has never seen in his long history as the black Spoiler. Wherever he goes, Christ seems to draw the demons out by his mere presence.

In this sense, the New Testament lights up the teaching of the Old on Satan. By contrast with the New Testament, the Old Testament shows by default the hiddenness of Satan. Normally he will not be seen or heard. It is Christ who forces him and his cohort out of their hiding places. This flushing out of Satan from his obscurity is one of the many things peculiar to the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. The demons can’t stand the tension of his being around. They cry out, they abuse, they plead, even though unprovoked by him. From their point of view, everything unravels when Jesus Christ approaches. So it is in our Gospel passage today (Mark 5:1-20), in which our Lord arrives in pagan territory so as to be with his disciples away from the crowds. He has calmed the storm on the way across — and I cannot help wondering whether the demons had something to do with the fury of the storm. He lands on the shore in "the country of the Gerasenes," and we read that "immediately" a man hopelessly possessed with demons ran to him from afar and grovelled before him. The demons instantly declare themselves and plead with Jesus as with One who has all power and goodness. There is nothing like this in all of the Old Testament and it reveals a fundamental feature of the New. The Gospels record a fight between Christ and Satan. Satan had quietly deceived Eve into a catastrophic course, and then had withdrawn. There in his obscurity he remained, working withal behind the scene of the world. Now, however, he has to appear because the seed of the woman, the all-holy One, has arrived to crush his head. We get the impression of panic in the demonic ranks. All they can do is abuse, put on bravado, plead and ask for consideration. So it is that in our Gospel today the demons drive the unfortunate man into the presence of Jesus and ask for consideration. Do not torment me! they (the "Legion") wail. They seem even to be playing on Christ’s goodness: they ridiculously attempt to bind our Lord by oath. I abjure you by God, do not torment me! They want to stay in the area. Send us, if need be, into the pigs! Our Lord allowed it, and as we read, the devils thereupon hurled the pigs to their death — yet another sign of their true form.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ reveals far more than does the Old Testament that we have a choice. On the one hand there is Christ, and on the other there is Satan. It is the same as it was in the beginning. The woman had a choice. She could listen to the insinuations of the Serpent, or she could listen to the word of God. So too with us. We can listen to the word of Christ, or we can listen to the whisperings of Satan. Satan is characteristically hidden — he is as he was in the Old Testament. He is rarely seen, but his presence is a very active one. Christ is present and very active too, and he is the far stronger one. Let us take our stand with Jesus, following his way to the Cross, and gain with him the victory.

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