Homily: Do Demons Really Exist?
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
In this morning's Gospel reading, from the King James version, we heard the father of the afflicted boy diagnose his child's malady by declaring to Jesus, "He is lunatick." On the OCA website it utilizes the New King James version which says "he is an epileptic." The New International Version says "he has seizures." Most English translations use one of these three words: lunatic, epileptic, or seizures. Only one of these is accurate according to the Greek original, and that is lunatic. Of course we think of the word "lunatic" as someone who is crazy, out of control, psychotic. But what it meant originally was moonstruck, someone affected by phases of the moon or malevolent moon beams. Only Matthew uses this word and he only uses it one other time, and that, too, is in connection with healing (see Matthew 4: 24).
The problem here is that none of these words are accurate when it comes to defining what was causing this child to throw himself into the fire and into the water. None of these words explain why he fell to the ground, foamed at the mouth, gnashed his teeth or went rigid, as St Mark describes (see Mark 9:28). The father blames it on the moon. Modernist translators, who are ever eager to demythologize all things supernatural, want to blame it on physical diseases. But the truth is quite different. The boy was afflicted by demons. He was demon-possessed. Do we believe that demons exist? Of course we do. Jesus does, the Church does, and we do.
Brethren, it's important to note that the ancients were not nearly as ignorant as we might mistakenly suppose. They certainly DID know about mental illness. The ancient pagan Greeks also knew about it, and had developed therapies to treat it. The early church fathers also were quite aware of mental illness. Mother Melania of Calistoga once wrote: "The Church Fathers routinely refer to medical treatment of the insane with no hint of disapproval...This confirms that the Fathers generally believed in mental illness and that it was distinct from demonic possession." St. John Chrysostom says, “Physicians, when they are kicked, and shamefully handled by the insane, then most of all pity them, and take measures for their perfect cure, knowing that the insult comes of the extremity of their disease." No mention of demons at all.
However, there is no doubt that the Lord Jesus not only believes that there are demons, but He also teaches that a good part of our spiritual life must be dedicated to warfare against them. How do we know this? Because when He taught His disciples to pray, He ended that prayer with the words "deliver us from the evil one!" The Church also believes in the reality of demons and demon-possession, and provides us with many weapons to use against them. Examples? Three prayers of exorcism are read over any candidate, even wee babies, before they are baptized. (Question: You might ask how a forty day old infant might be afflicted with demons? Answer: Not through any sin of its own, but by means of a demon-attracting life lived by its parents, or found in its environment. This is what the Scriptures mean when they say the "sins of the parents are visited upon the children" (Deuteronomy 5:9). What other weapons does the Church give us to fight against the demons? The Great Prayers of Exorcism given in the Trebnik. These are read by the Bishop or priest over someone afflicted by or possessed by demons. Sometimes these prayers have been read over a multitude of people, or even whole towns. There is an amazing story that I heard on the Holy Mountain back in the 90's, and was set down my my friend and classmate Archimandrite Vasileios (Bakoyannis) in a little booklet called "Weapons Against Satanic Influence."
"There was once a famous sorcerer who went to Kolwezi, a town in Zaire, in 1984, and set about curing people of their afflictions. Hieromonk Meletios, a missionary priest from the Monastery of Gregoriou on Mt. Athos, was an eye-witness to the events that took place there and related that in October, 1994, the sorcerer returned to the same town, preceded by an extensive publicity campaign. Banners were stretched over the main streets and loud speakers announced his arrival. They said that "the Savior" is returning. They had also set up a platform on one of the main roads where the sorcerer would stand. Lots of people hurried to make their way there to present themselves before him in order to be cured of their diseases. The "savior" arrived. There was pandemonium. His timetable was such that he would remain in the town for a whole week.
On the first day he went to the platform to heal the sick that were waiting anxiously. He said his prayers but nothing happened. Three hours went by and still there were no healings. On day two, he said his prayers again. But again he had nothing to show for them. Meanwhile, the loudspeakers on the street continued to announce his presence in the town. On the third day, he still had nothing to show for his efforts. The people began to feel uneasy. On day four, there was still nothing happening and the people began to get angry.
But all hope was not lost because there were still three days left. He did everything he could, but still without affecting any result at all. And then, on the last day, overwhelmed with confusion, he was forced to admit to the disappointed crowd that this was the first time that anything like this had happened to him and that it had happened there in Kolwezi. Well, what really happened?
Fr. Meletios, the Orthodox missionary, had not been idle. He had used the visit of the sorcerer as an opportunity to shame the devil, to demonstrate the power of the Orthodox Church and to glorify God. Every time the shaman mounted the platform to do his "healings," Fr. Meletios and all the Orthodox Christians gathered in the Church of St. George and chanted the Supplicatory Canon to the Mother of God, and then read the prayers of exorcism of St. Basil the Great. In confessing that this was the first time that anything like this had happened to him, the famous shaman did not know that he was being opposed by the spiritual weapons of the Orthodox Church."
So what are some other weapons given to us by the Church to combat Satan and his evil spirits? The Sign of the Cross. Each time we make the sign of the Cross, either on ourselves or on others, we perform a small exorcism. The devil flees from the sign of the Cross. At baptisms when the water is blessed crosswise by the bishop or priest, he says: "May all adverse powers be crushed beneath the sign of the image of Thy Cross!" What else? The Holy Mysteries: Baptism, Confession, Holy Communion, Holy Unction, all of these are given to us as a means to drive out Satan. All of them repel the demons, but they also free us from the sins that cling to our souls and give ground in us for those demons. Are there more? Well, what did we learn in today's Gospel? "This kind (of demon) goes not out but by prayer and fasting" (Matthew 17: 21). We saw the power of the Church praying together in Africa - how the demonic powers of the sorcerer utterly evaporated. This is only one of many reasons to be in Church more frequently rather than less. But also our own private prayers, and our prayers in the Prayer Book, these are very effective in driving away the evil spirits. Take, for example, in the Evening Prayers: "thwart the enemies, fleshly and bodiless, that war against me. And deliver me, O Lord, from vain thoughts and evil desires which defile me." And again, "O Jesus, Good Shepherd of Thy sheep, deliver me not over to the sedition of the serpent, and leave me not to the will of Satan, for the seed of corruption is in me." And again, "O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, for the sake of Thy most honourable Mother, and Thy bodiless angels, Thy Prophet and Forerunner and Baptist, the God-inspired apostles, the radiant and victorious martyrs, the holy and God-bearing fathers, and through the intercessions of all the saints, deliver me from the besetting presence of the demons."And who can forget the prayer that we say right before sleep? "Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Him flee from before His face. As smoke vanisheth, so let them vanish; as wax melteth before the fire, so let the demons perish from the presence of them that love God and who sign themselves with the sign of the Cross and say in gladness: Rejoice, most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, for Thou drivest away the demons by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ Who was crucified on thee." Listen to these. Do we often neglect our evening prayers? When we do, we drop our own weapons, given to us by God, and leave them behind. The Church also provides us with many other tools; the Prayers Against Demonic Snares, the Prayer Against the Evil Eye, Prayer for a Home Troubled by Evil Spirits, all of these are read by a Bishop or Priest. But probably the best and simplest means of thwarting and driving away evil spirits is the Jesus Prayer. The Holy Fathers call the Jesus Prayer "the Whip of Christ" which drives away the "moneychangers" of evil spirits and their intrusive thoughts. This is why the holy fathers, and all contemporary elders, spiritual fathers and mothers, all recommend to us the use of the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me" every day as part of our prayer rule. Brothers and Sisters, may we never bury these talents of tools and weapons in the earth, but use them, increase them, and employ them each and every day in our lives. By doing so, our combat will be well-pleasing to God, and salvific for our souls. Amen.