Today’s Mass readings deliver a stark message. They deal with evil. Something that is never far from us. We hear Moses’s words reminding the Jewish people of the fact that they had formerly begged God at Horeb not to show them the fire of his presence or the sound of his voice any more. They begged for a prophet who would be an intermediary, because they knew how unworthy they were – and that they would die if they appeared before God in that state.
We learn something about being human from this story: we are always standing before God. And this harkens back to a feature of the Garden of Eden – something that did not disappear with the First Sin – when Adam and Eve hid themselves because they were “naked.”
In the readings for today, God goes on speaking through Moses: “Whoever will not listen to my words which he [God’s prophet] speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it.”
Interestingly, this is where one of the earliest Christian heresies found a point of entry. Gnosticism – which first broke out in the second century A.D, then again in the high middle ages, and at odd times and places since (including today) – does not believe that “the soul attains its proper end by obedience of mind and will to the Supreme Power.” (Catholic Encyclopedia) The Gnostic heresy loses sight of the most basic relationship in our whole existence: We live in an exchange of life and love with God. This is the primary thing that leads us to fullness of life.
The Psalm that we sing today in response to Moses’ words picks up that theme and adds to what we know about this relationship: we “sing joyfully to the Lord.” We “acclaim the rock of our salvation.” So “let us bow down in worship,” which is what we do at Mass.
But ignoring, often even acting contrary to, this wonderful relation with God, leads us into a state of anxiety. In the Second Reading, Paul describes some of the places where that anxiety originates. To the community in Corinth, Paul shows how the Catholic vision of life, the life before God, enlivens and enriches relationships between men and women.
A central fact about the single man or woman’s life is that it involves a good deal of anxiety. He or she is always to be “anxious about the things of the Lord.” And young people, too, live by obedience of mind and will to the Supreme Power mentioned earlier. This is a rare sentiment in modern culture and ought to be shouted from the rooftops again and again. For young men and women to thrive, much as they might not want to hear it at first, they have to learn what God expects of them.
Thomas More presents an interesting and instructive example. As a young man More lived in the Carthusian Charterhouse in London. He stayed there to learn a regular life of prayer and wholesome community life, as he was discerning what his future would be. It would be a future, he reflected, that served God in some way.
After careful consideration, he chose the law and married life. In today’s Second Reading. Paul acknowledges that married men and women must have genuine involvement in the world, but that involvement is only one side in a balancing act where the married man also has to show his love for his wife and the married woman has to show her love for her husband.
The implication here is that for each thought and act, he or she discerns the will of God. With that we are back at the theme of the First Reading. This kind of life is – in Paul’s words – “for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction.” These are the features of a life that makes one genuinely human, genuinely fruitful, and genuinely faithful.
This regimen produces a life of such depth and richness that it makes the Gnostic’s life drab and anxious by comparison. Why harp on Gnosticism? Because the heresy is still alive and working its mischief in our society. It appears most clearly in how the political Left displays a curious self-sufficiency and (imagined) superior knowledge.
Radical leftists do not refer to God’s will at all. The elite, like their counterparts in earlier centuries, believe that they already possess a special knowledge (Gnosis) of what is good for humanity.
Not surprisingly, that esoteric knowledge translates into ways of doing things that give the elite even more wealth and power. Gnosticism is a denial of the Catholic way of thinking and it’s therefore no surprise that Gnostic currents in our culture also aim at dismantling Catholicism. Gnostics are the “people who sit in darkness” (the Gospel acclamation). They claim superior wisdom, but ignore the light of God.
Which brings us to today’s Gospel. Jesus is the prophet announced by Moses. He is the virtuous (First Reading) single (Second Reading) man who lives a life devoted to the will of God. He is the light of the Acclamation. Consequently, he possesses the extraordinary power of driving out demons. They are “unclean,” which means that the man who is possessed cannot worship God as he should.
Thomas Aquinas reminds us that our sins most often come from our egoism. Outright possession occurs only rarely. But let us beware of the ways that what is “unclean” enters most of us, via our belief – like the Gnostics – that we know better how to live than does God Himself – the true core of our lives.
*Image: Christ Healing the Possessed Gerasene Man by a Milanese workshop, c. 968 [Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, Germany]