Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost: The Healing of the Gergasenes’ demoniacs & Feast of the Tikhvin Ikon of the Theotokos

Gospel: [Matt. 8:28-9:1 (§28) & Luke 10:38-42, 11:27-28 (§54)]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Father, brothers and sisters: Spraznecom! Happy Feast!

From our first Gospel reading today you may well have experienced a certain strange déjà vu. Our Gospel today sounds almost identical to the more well-known reading preserved in both St Mark and St Luke’s Gospels of the healing of a man who was afflicted with a Legion of demons, but it is also subtly different. In St Mark and Luke’s account there is only one man mentioned and the place is called the country of the Gadarenes. By contrast in St Matthew’s Gospel, our Lord is in the country of the Gergesenes and there are two demoniacs mentioned rather than just one. Other than this, though the accounts are virtually identical both ending with a healing and a massive loss of pigs. What can we say about this? Firstly, St John Chrysostom in harmony with all the Church Fathers, sees that this is just another perspective on the same healing miracle and there is no necessary conflict or contradiction between these two accounts.

As St John says,

And though Luke and those who follow him say that it was one person, but this evangelist (St Matthew) two, this does not exhibit any discrepancy at all. I grant if they had said, there was only one, and no other, they would appear to disagree with Matthew; but if that spoke of the one, this of the two, the statement comes not of disagreement, but of a different manner of narration.

We should thus see that of the two men who our Lord healed, one was subject to a more severe level of demonic possession, and this is the man known as Legion, who went on to follow and preach Christ and who is the main subject of St Mark’s and Luke’s account.

What then of the place of this miracle: the country of the Gergasenes or the Gadarenes? In early Byzantine times, we know that the place which was identified as the site of this miracle is near the town of Gergesa, in what is today known as Kersa. This fits in very well with the topographical details which are provided in the different Gospel accounts as it contains the only “steep bank” in the area descending all the way to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The monks built a walled monastic complex there and made it a destination for Christian pilgrims. Gergesa or Kersa/Kersi as it is now known was a small village, and as the nearby city of Gadara was much better known, the Evangelists Mark and Luke spoke of the miracle occurring in the wider country of the Gadarenes, rather than the more parochial reference to Gergesa. Thus, we can again see that there is no necessary contradiction between the Gospel accounts, they are both referring in different ways to the same place.

So, our Lord comes out of a boat and enters the village of Gergesa within the wider country of the Gadara and here he encounters these two demonaics. It is important here to qualify that these demonaics were under a full or total possession of the demons, to such a severe extent that they had lost almost all of their human agency, identity and voice. This differs from the far more common and universal human experience of demonic temptation where the demons attempt to influence externally, from without. The subjects of our Gospel reading today, however, were suffering from a far more intense level of demonic attack and influence whereby they had possession and control of these two men from within, from the inside. We can thus see that the men in St Matthew’s account do not speak on their own account, with their own voice. Rather, when they speak we only hear the voice and perspective of the demons.

And, behold, they cried out, saying, What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? art thou come hither to torment us before the time?

We see here that whilst the people of this region, did not recognize or perceive who had come into their country, and regarded him as just a Jewish stranger, the demons immediately saw and understood, without doubt or hesitation and perversely proclaimed both his power and his divinity –

What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God?

This phenomenon can be seen throughout many of the exorcisms in the holy Gospels. Whilst the Pharisees tried to portray Christ as under the influence and power of Satan, the demons themselves knew that they were coming face to face with their enemy and the One who has True Authority, Might and Power. As the Apostle James reminds us in his epistle –

James 2: 19 – Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.

The reference to ‘before the time’ was to the Last Judgment when the demons knew they would be finally destroyed and overcome, as the final and glorious reign of the Kingdom is manifested at the end of the time. We thus see them engaging in a negotiation with Christ, so that they might be permitted to endure and not destroyed. The demons noticing this herd of pigs, thus ask to enter into them. Again, note here the fundamentally limited power of the demons, they know that they must ask permission of the Lord, and do not have this power or authority themselves to do anything. They are dependent on the Son of God. The herd of swine points to the fact that this was a Gentile region, as pigs were considered unclean in the Mosaic Law. It was suitable, though that such dark and unclean spirits should seek to enter into animals which were also prohibited and unclean within the Old Covenental Law.   

In the narrative sequence, immediate before our Gospel reading, our Lord was asleep in the boat on the Sea of Galilee and his disciples owing to the size of the waves, and the tempest that surrounded them,  were impelled to wake the Lord before the boat should capsize. They were stunned with amazement when the Lord was able just through his word alone to control the elements –

What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him!

Just so, when it came to the unclean and demonic spirits look at the complete control and mastery which our Lord has over them. He simply utters one word – “Go.” and all the demons which were cruelly tormenting these poor men were immediately released straight into the herd of swine, showing that not only does He have authority over the natural world, but also the supernatural.

What are we to make though of this stark contrast between on the one hand, the presentation of these previously possessed men and on the other side the thousands of swine, who upon becoming possessed by the evil spirits, careered down the slopes and into the water? St John Chrysostom in his homily on this passage emphasizes the way in which this illustrates the providential care of God. That had it not been for God’s providential care and protection for the demonaics, whilst they were possessed, they would have been destroyed as instantaneously as the swineherd –

So then they that spared not the swine, but in one moment of time cast them all down the precipice, much more would they have done so to the men whom they possessed, leading them towards the desert, and carrying them away, unless even in their very tyranny the guardian care of God had abounded, to curb and check the excess of their violence. Whence it is manifest that there is no one, who does not enjoy the benefit of God’s providence. And if not all alike, nor after one manner, this is itself a very great instance of providence; in that according to each man’s profit, the work also of providence is displayed.

Despite the fact though that these two tormented souls were miraculously and wondrously released from their total captivity to satan in this dramatic spectacle, the Gadarenes or Gergasenes clearly did not perceive Who it was who had come to them. Thinking only of their material prosperity, rather than begging the Lord to stay, they instead, perversely, beg Him to leave. But look, St John Chrysostom reminds us at the humility of the Lord in obeying their request –

… Mark also His meekness together with His power. For when the inhabitants of that country, after having received such benefits, were driving Him away, He resisted not, but retired, and left those who had shown themselves unworthy of His teaching, having given them for teachers them that had been freed from the demons, and the swine-herds, that they might of them learn all that had happened; while Himself retiring leaves the fear vigorous in them.

Again, we see in this, that our meek and merciful Lord never imposes, He never forces Himself upon us. He condescends to our weakness, to our blindness and ingratitude and always respects and never crushes our free will. He will always come and abide with us, if we ask Him, but where there is no faith, no love or reverence for Him He will depart, as graciously as when He arrived.

These themes of both providential care and meekness leads us to briefly consider the great feast of the miraculous appearance of the Tikhvin Ikon of the Mother of God which we also celebrate today. By tradition, this ikon was painted by the holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke and after some time in the holy lands, was then preserved in the Imperial city of Constantinople. Perhaps sensing the fall of that once great city to the Ottoman Turks, the Ikon then miraculously appeared, not by the banks of the Sea of Galilee as in our Gospel reading, but rather by the shores of lake Lagoda beside the village of Prechistenskoye Pogost, the future village of Tikhvin. Here a wooden church dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos was erected and the holy ikon was installed where it became the source of many miraculous healings. In the 17th Century, a new stone church was erected and a men’s monastery was established. Despite the threatening of the Swedes who were successfully and ruthlessly invading the region, the Mother of God through her Ikon protected the Russian people in Tikhvin and the Swedes upon seeing the Muscovite army approaching fled in panic. Later on, the Ikon was to move again, as with the this time, Nazi occupation of the monastery, the ikon was taken to Pskov and then Riga where it was guarded by Bishop John and his adopted son, Sergei. The ikon was then smuggled out of Eastern Europe which at this time was back under Soviet control. This was no mean feat. The ikon is very large, weighing about 30kg with its heavy, bejewelled Riza. As Sergei walked through the mountains, with this large ikon strapped to his back, Soviet planes were dropping bombs on either side. The Bolsheviks at one point stopped Sergei and Bishop John, but not perceiving the true spiritual value of this wonderworking and historic ikon, permitted them to leave to the United States of America. Just as the inhabitants of the country of the Gadarenes failed to see, failed to realise the extraordinary guest, the One who had come into their midst, so too these blind Soviet agents failed to see the Mother of God in her Ikon, and in their madness allow the Theotokos, this great protectress of the Russian people to leave their land. However, the Lord, as well as His Most holy Mother, will never leave the faithful orphans and where there is true faith and love, they will come and make their abode. Just so, after the fall of communism, this wondrous ikon returned to the newly restored Monastery of Tikhniv where it is now honoured and revered once again.

My dear Father, brothers and sisters: let us learn in today’s Gospel as well as in the story of this wondrous ikon the depth of the Lord and His most holy mother’s providential care for us, without which we would be utterly destroyed. Let us not become like the ‘swinish Gadarenes’ and fail to recognize them when they meekly, quietly and gently come to us, lest in our blindness, in our passions or stupidity we should ask them to leave us, we, poor souls, who are in such need of their saving presence and protection.

Most holy Theotokos, save us!