Tucked away inside today’s Gospel story is a picture of a dysfunctional society at war with itself. The landscape of the tombs where the two demoniacs spent their existence was barren enough. But I visualise the whole landscape of that town as desecrated and barren – barren of beauty and harmony. Humans and nature in conflict. Perhaps like a modern industrial wasteland.
But the waste and desecration of the land of the Gergesenes was not only physical. More importantly, it was spiritual. There was no love, no compassion, no mutual support among the people of that region. They drove the two men away from their midst and abandoned them to self-destructive existence, as the versions the Gospel of Mark and in the Gospel of Luke make abundantly clear. When Jesus released the demons to enter the herd of pigs, he destroyed a significant portion of that town’s economy. The damage to the town’s economy was more important to the townspeople than the healing of the two men. They could not rejoice at the miracle. Instead, they asked Jesus to leave, to get out of town, before he could do any more damage!
This miracle story, and especially in its other two versions in Mark and Luke, is a parable for today – especially as we debate reopening the economy and saving lives during this pandemic. But more than that, it is a parable of our own broken relationships with each other, with nature, and perhaps even most profoundly, the broken relationships with our own deeper selves, with our own spirits, with our own existence as the image of God.
In the poem “The Art of Healing”, the great poet W. H. Auden wrote:
‘Healing,’ Papa would tell me, ‘is not a science, but the intuitive art of wooing Nature.'
I don’t know what the poet or his papa meant by healing is the art of wooing nature. Perhaps the poet is saying that we have to woo nature, just as we have to woo each other into relationships that bring peace to our lives and to society’s life. And we have to woo our own deeper selves so we can know ourselves more fully. And there’s healing in all that wooing! In all that romancing!
A miracle story, but what makes it important and relevant to us today is not the miracle, but what the story says to us. It is a parable of healing for us. In the story, Jesus engaged in dialogue with the demons. There is dialogue taking place right now. Jesus dialogues with our own inner selves!! He is asking us to identify ourselves. Who are we, what do we live for? What are we afraid of? Our actions, our answers, either drive Jesus away from our lives. Or, we drive Jesus, invite Jesus, into our lives. The dialogue is taking place at a deep level, where Jesus sees more deeply than we can see ourselves. Where Jesus can see where and to whom our hearts belong. We cannot fool God. Some people can even try to fool all the people all the time. But no one can fool God.
In Greek, the two words Agios and Agrios are very different in meaning but they are different by only one letter, the ‘r’, ρ. Agios. Άγιος = Holy. Agrios, Άγριος = Wild, fierce. The two wild, demon-possessed men, became calm, they became holy, because Christ shared his love with them.
Jesus knew how to share his love and life with the two wild men, because there was nothing in human existence that he did not experience. He experienced every pain, every humiliation, every distress, every hunger, every temptation, every sickness and suffering, and even death. And he experienced it all as God. A profound mystery here: God learned compassion, from the inside, in order to show us the way to do likewise and to be likewise. It’s always a learning experience, isn’t it? Even for God! The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him (5:8-9). That’s in the Bible!
Jesus learned; and he became perfect. Was he not perfect already? He learned what it is to be human; he learned by experiencing what we go through, what our lives are full of. And only then could he become the true healer that he was; and the true healer that he is. He became perfect. This teaching straight out of the Bible is sadly ignored in much of our Orthodox theology. For some reason we just don’t want to think about Jesus as human. Maybe we prefer him just as God, safely removed from our daily lives. Maybe we just don’t want him around, like the Gergesenes didn’t. And yet, it is not I or some secular thinker saying this, it’s the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament. And the Orthodox Church considers this letter to have been written by none other than St. Paul, even though there is no self-identification of the author.
The healing of the two men wasn’t just the release of demons; it was the liberation of the two men’s humanity. The issue for us is what it means to be human. What it means to be human, according to William Stringfellow, is “to be free from idolatry in any form, including idolatry of race….” To be human “means to accept and participate in God’s affirmation of one’s own life in Christ.” It means “the freedom, in the first place, to love yourself in the way in which God himself has shown that he loves” you and every human being. The reconciliation that needs to take place in our society requires that every one of us needs to be reconciled to ourselves; “to love another means first the freedom to love yourself.” But not love ourselves in that narcissistic, self-promoting way that comes so easily. But love yourself because God loved you first and sent his Son to share life with you and to show you that life is what W. H. Auden wrote: the art of wooing.
So let’s begin by wooing ourselves and find that deeper self in us where Jesus engages in dialogue with us. And then perhaps we might be able to share love and life with others. We can learn with Jesus what is the art of wooing, the art of romancing.