In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we have heard the account in the Gospel according to Matthew of the possessed men and the Gadarene swine. It is a difficult Gospel; some people like pigs, at any rate they are part of God’s creation, why they should be sacrificed to a horrible death—falling down the cliff to drown in the sea—even for the sake of the sanity of two men, possessed by demons, who lived in a graveyard and terrorized anyone passing by on the road? I have no answer. Some people say the English are sentimental about animals, and that we should be more down-to-earth and treat them as some kind of lower creation, and not project on to them what is sometimes called the ‘pathetic fallacy’, treating them as if they, too, were in the image of God, like humans. But even recognizing that, there does seems to be a wanton disregard for part of God’s creation—by the Creator himself. I suppose one has to accept that in the human Jewish culture in which God became incarnate, pigs were regarded as unclean, and that pagans (the story takes place outside the Holy Land, on the far side of the Lake of Galilee) were looked at askance for keeping pigs, and for eating them. But let us not allow our sensibilities to prevent us from listening to the Gospel: as the priest orders you to do before the Gospel: ‘Wisdom, Stand upright. Let us listen to the Holy Gospel! Peace to all!’
So what do we hear, when we listen to this Gospel? Two men in a terrible state, living among the tombs, terrorizing passers-by. The Lord passes by, not apparently with his disciples, and the men cry out (or rather the demons possessing them), ‘What have you to do with us, Son of God? Are you coming here before the time to torment us?’ The demons recognize who Jesus is, even if most don’t, not even his disciples—who have just had a terrible shock at nearly being drowned by a sudden storm on the Sea of Galilee, from which they had been saved by Jesus’ rebuking the winds and the sea. They are amazed, but get no further than wondering among themselves, ‘What kind of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’ (cf. Matt. 8: 23–7); they are presumably still in the boat still in a state of shock. The demons, by contrast, are all too clear who Jesus is, and they are conscious that they have no place in the presence of the Son of God, as they call him. Realizing that they have met their match in Jesus, they bargain: at least send us into the herd of pigs. And we know what happens. And then what? Matthew’s account is rather different from the accounts in Mark and Luke (Mark 5: 1–20; Luke 8: 26–39). Let us not go into details, but note that Matthew’s account is very much shorter than in the other two Synoptic Gospels: there is nothing about the demoniacs themselves (just one in both Mark and Luke), nothing about their relationship to Christ. All that happens in Matthew’s account is that the swineherds flee, as terrified as the demons, and go to the nearby city to tell the people there what has happened to the demoniacs. And then, the whole city comes out to meet Jesus; when they see him, they beg him to leave their region. The Gospel reading ends with Jesus getting back in the boat and going to ‘his own city’, presumably Capernaum.
The demons seem to be the heroes of the narrative: they recognize Jesus as the Son of God, realize that their time is up (actually, realize that that the day is coming when their time will truly be up; that it hasn’t come yet; but, nevertheless, with Jesus’ presence, it has as far as they are concerned). They cannot endure the presence of the holiness of God. The only other people involved are the swineherds and the people of the city: they just want to have nothing to do with Jesus, whoever he is. He is just bad news: he has destroyed one of the main sources of food for the rest of the year. They want no more to do with him.
Holiness is often very off-putting; there is never anything very ‘cuddly’ about the saints (we do them a terrible injustice if we turn them into jovial figures: think what the West has done to St Nicolas—Santa Claus—Father Christmas!). They are often very demanding, very disconcerting—as was Christ himself, whom we are always seeking to tame by mistaking his gentleness for softness. The reaction of the demons—terror—the reaction of the people of the city—dismay: these are authentic reactions to real holiness. Alas, they are negative reactions, too—not wanting to engage with holiness, but escape its demands. Matthew’s account of the Gadarene demoniac is curiously isolated. Jesus is on his own, not on Jewish territory, far from the synagogue that he so often made the place for his healing and teaching. In a way, one can only make sense of Jesus, if we have some sense of the holiness of God that he embodies. And if there is one theme that runs through the Old Testament, it is the holiness of God, holiness that is awe-inspiring, but closes in on us, that encounters us. A theme manifest in Abraham’s encounters with God—the meeting with Melchisedech (Gen. 14: 18–20), in the deep sleep that fell on him (15: 12–21), at the oak of Mamre (18: 1–15), bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom (18: 22–33), commanded to sacrifice Isaac (22: 1–14)—or Jacob’s dream (Gen. 28: 10–22) or his struggle with God (32: 22–32), or Moses at the Burning Bush (Exod. 3: 1–17), or on Mount Sinai (Exod. 19–20; 33: 12–23), or Elijah on Mount Horeb (3 Kingdoms 19: 4–18), or Isaiah in the Temple (Isa. 6). The author of the Letter to the Hebrews sums up this sense of the fearful presence of the holiness of God, when he says, quoting the Old Testament, ‘for our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12: 29, quoting Deut. 4. 24).
This holiness of God we encounter in the saints, the holy ones. We encounter it, too, in the Divine Liturgy. After the Creed the priest proclaims: ‘Let us stand with awe, let us stand with fear; let us attend, that we may offer the holy oblation in peace!’ For, in offering the holy oblation, we are caught up in Christ’s offering of himself to the Father, we are caught up in the love of the Son, returning to the Father—caught up by the Holy Spirit in the holy cycle of divine love, coming from the Father into the world and returning from the world through the Son to the Father. And in that offering Christ offers himself to us in the Holy Gifts; thus one of the prayers before receiving Holy Communion: ‘See, to divine Communion I draw near; My Maker, burn me not as I partake, For you are a fire consuming the unworthy; But therefore make me clean from every stain’. The consuming presence of God’s holy love transforms us; the fire of his love consumes us so that there is no longer any obstacle in ourselves to this love, so that we become transparent to this love, so that this love shines through us into the world—so that we become saints, holy ones, radiant with the love of God. Amen!