The Exorcism in Capernaum (4th Sunday of Ordinary Time)

THE SCRIPTURES & ART: The exorcism in the Synagogue of Capernaum is depicted in this Romanesque fresco from Lambach Abbey in Upper Austria.

“At the Synagogue in Capernaum,” 11th century
“At the Synagogue in Capernaum,” 11th century (photo: Public Domain)

During the first weeks of Ordinary Time, the Church also leads us through the first episodes in Jesus’ public ministry. Mark’s Gospel — the focus of this year’s readings — contains no Infancy Narrative. It begins instead with John’s preaching and Jesus’ Baptism, followed immediately by Jesus’ proclamation of the advent of the Kingdom and, in consequence, the call to repentance (1:14). What follows is the call of the first Apostles (Peter, Andrew, James and John), featured in the Gospels of the last two Sundays, and then today’s event, Jesus’ first miracle in the Synoptics (1:21-27).

Jesus is in Capernaum, a town on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee and about 30 miles northeast of his hometown of Nazareth. It is Saturday (the Sabbath) and Jesus enters the synagogue to teach. The first reaction of his hearers is “amazement” because they recognize what he says is authoritative (v. 21-22).

But while Jesus’ human audience is hearing him, his supernatural audience doesn’t want to listen to Jesus or have anyone else do so. The unclean spirit of the possessed man interrupts Jesus, “crying out,” demanding to know what he wants, asking if he is there to destroy them, and revealing his identity as “the Holy One of God!” (verses 23-24).

Let’s unpack that text. For Mark (and all orthodox Christianity), Jesus’ ministry is not about ethical teaching or urging us to be “nice.” It is about spiritual warfare “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). The advent of the Kingdom is the final countdown, launched in Jesus’ public ministry and ending in his Second Coming, all intermediate history part of that struggle. Jesus reckons with personal Evil — the Devil — whom, as Pope St. Paul VI was wont to remind us, most effectively deceives us by making us believe he does not exist.

Was the unfortunate man described in today’s Gospel just mentally ill? No. The key point is that the demon correctly identifies Jesus, one with whom the Devil has already tussled. (Remember that, in the Synoptics, the Temptation in the Desert precedes Jesus’ public ministry.)

Jesus gives the demon two orders: to be quiet and to leave the man. Each deserves explanation.

After the demon has proclaimed Jesus’ identity, Jesus orders him to be silent. The “Messianic Secret” is very prominent in Mark’s Gospel: Jesus is constantly telling people to be quiet about him. One would think Jesus would want to proclaim that message from the rooftops.

At one point, he will — once he is raised from the dead. But until that happens, the idea of Messiah in Jesus’ Day carried too much extra baggage that threatened to divert attention from what Jesus was about. Jesus’ Jewish interlocutors expected a political Messiah that would put Israel back on top of the heap; Jesus’ Kingdom is not about Israel’s political fortunes but about defeating “the world, the flesh and the devil.” 

The path to that defeat lay through Calvary and, as we already saw with Peter, that path elicited a certain recalcitrance. It is only when Jesus has suffered, died, and risen can all these dreams of political liberation finally be abandoned in favor of spiritual victory. The Capernaum demon clearly sees that, even if Jesus’ human audience doesn’t (yet). That’s why Jesus enjoins silence — because until one grasps what his mission is really about, there is a greater risk of misrepresenting him rather than witnessing to him. 

Jesus also performs his first miracle — a healing miracle, an exorcism. Jesus’ ministry is about healing man from slavery to evil, which makes him less than “fully alive” (to borrow St. Irenaeus’ phrase). There will be many more healings to follow immediately in Mark’s Gospel, but this first healing reminds us that the fundamental disorder in the human person is spiritual, not physical. Jesus is about the spiritual restoration of the person, not a first century public health crusade in Israel. That perspective might be useful in guiding how we approach our current pandemic.

Jesus’ miracle also gives us clues about his identity properly understood. As the Capernaum crowd marvels, “He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him!” (verse 27). As Jesus will elsewhere note (Matthew 12:27-28) when challenged by what authority he exorcises (leading to his famous “house divided against itself” image), driving out the devil is a divine act that testifies to the advent of the Kingdom. The fact that Jesus does this on the Sabbath — the sacred day instituted and sanctified by God himself (Genesis 2:23) — means Jesus clearly claims authority over the Sabbath, a prerogative that belongs to God himself and, by which, he declares his divinity. 

The exorcism in the Synagogue of Capernaum is depicted in this Romanesque fresco from Lambach Abbey in Upper Austria, about 50 miles northeast of Salzburg. Lambach Abbey was founded circa 1040, and this fresco dates from eleventh century. It exemplifies the Romanesque style in art (bright but basic colors framed within columns, typically two-dimensional), a general pan-Christian art form that preceded the Gothic. Frescos are types of wall painting, where the painting is painted on wet plaster.

Jesus stands appropriately in the center, young and beardless, the possessed man beneath his feet. Exorcists regularly record the tendency of the possessed to debase or degrade themselves, throw themselves down and contort themselves, characteristics also reported in the Gospels. (Consider the Gerasene demoniacs, living among the dead and mutilating themselves — Mark 5:1-12.) Theologically, recall that in the “Protoevangelium” (the “Little Gospel” in Genesis 3:15 that is the first promise of Redemption), God declares that the seed of the “woman” will “crush” the serpent’s (i.e., the Devil’s) head as he strikes at the Savior’s heel.

Two groups of men appear in the fresco, an ensemble of 12 on Jesus’ right hand, 14 on his left. (Perhaps we can be grateful to the painter who, by upping the left to 14, gives us a suggestion about the identity of the 12.) We can assume that the Twelve on the right (the side of Divine Power) are the Twelve Apostles, even though in Mark’s Gospel only four have been explicitly chosen by this point and the calling of Matthew is in the future (2:13-14). The 14 on the left are probably the people in the Capernaum Synagogue who heard Jesus’ teaching that day and witnessed this miracle. I would hesitate to draw any conclusions about being on Jesus’ Right or Left: whatever significance that might have on Judgment Day, remember that in this fresco Judas would have been on the right.

The Apostles and their successors will continue Jesus’ mission of driving out the Devil, extraordinarily by exorcism, ordinarily by the forgiveness of sins in the sacrament of Penance. Those I suggest are the Capernaum audience are the same witnesses who, seeing the action of the Evil One in the world and Jesus’ victory over him, are perhaps ambivalent. Some of them will honestly admit that what they saw is inexplicable apart from admitting Jesus is “the Holy One of God.” Others will brand him (and the whole situation) “mad” (Mark 3:21-30). The Pharisees said he was possessed; moderns simply pretend the supernatural is a fairy time from more gullible times. Both groups want to call good evil and evil good. We need not look to Capernaum for proof — just find the nearest “Christian” who wants to tell you that abortion is a legitimate “moral choice.” 

This is a fresco of healing, of rendering man “fully alive.” It is what Jesus’ mission is all about, particularly because it recognizes first of all where it is people actually need healing.