Since ancient times, the belief that evil was caused by malignant spirits led people to guard against their evil influences by resorting to magical practices, formulas, and the recitation of prayers, performing ritual acts such as destruction of statues, aspersion, spraying; everything to force the demons to leave. Exorcism, along with divination, was the essence of the Assyrian Babylonian religion. It was also practiced in Israel, where the disciples of the Pharisees successfully cast out demons (Mt 12:27). The Exorcism often bordered on magic. To increase its efficiency, invocation of names likely to contain divine power was added. Someone used the name of Jesus, sometimes getting good results (Mk 9:38), some other times causing the angry and aggressive reaction of the possessed (Acts 19:11-17).
Jesus heals the sick, and adapting to the current mentality, he resorts to exorcism, but he never performs magical gestures or esoteric rites. He does not pronounce incantations as the healers of his time did. He triumphs over evil only by the power of his word and asking them to have faith.
Exorcism should be practiced in the church in the same spirit. The belief that God would allow malicious spirits to take possession of either of his children is incompatible with belief in God who is Father. But there is no doubt that the “snake” spreading the poison of death is present in every human being from the moment of conception (Ps 51:7).
An exorcism is performed in the rite of baptism. It is the celebration of the victory already won by Christ on the spirit of evil. It is also the caress of the church to her child who now is going to struggle for life against the evil one. The fraternal community tells him: in this fight you’ll never be alone, we will all be at your side.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“I’m not alone in the fight against evil, Christ and the community of brothers are with me.”
First Reading: Genesis 3:9-15
To those who have a minimum of familiarity with the literary genres of the Bible, it may seem excessive, once again, to warn of the naive and simplistic interpretations of this passage. However, it’s worth it, because the temptation to give it a historic value always returns. It’s better then to repeat it: the story of Genesis, taken from today’s reading, is an account of something that happened at the beginning of the world. It is a text that, using the language of myth, gives an answer to the riddle of the presence of evil in the world. It explains not what some Adam and Eve would have done, but what we now are and do. It’s not serious to imagine man who, having eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, plays hide and seek with God. He is afraid of him, and ashamed of being naked, while before he felt no discomfort. It is not serious to hold that snakes now crawl on the ground because, for no reason, God would have chastised them (before they had their legs?). They are not to blame if, in order to deceive the first humans, the devil assumed their appearance. The story also says that they were condemned to eat dust, yet today it does not appear that this happens.
The story of the so-called “original sin” is, in fact, the description of the origin of all our sins, and this touches us very closely.
Each creature has, in God’s plan, a meaning and a purpose, is part of a masterpiece. It is like the card of a wonderful mosaic that man, in harmony and working with the Creator, is called upon to make. Plants, animals, work, rest, sexuality, joys, celebrations and even pain and misfortune have a special place and specific function in the equilibrium of the universe. When “God saw all that he had made and it was very good” (Gen 1:31), it did not refer to the absence of disease and death, but the fact that every creature made sense; all served perfectly to the realization of his project.
What should man do? Study the creation, understand its meaning, discover the task he was called to perform and adapt his every action to God’s will. Everything would be harmonious if man had kept his place and had complied with the order established by God. There would be harmony between man and God: harmony is represented in the book of Genesis with the sweet image of God strolling in the garden beside man, while the evening breeze caresses them (Gen 3:8). There would be harmony between man and nature: the world would be loved, respected and cared for like a garden. There would be harmony between man and man: no domination, no oppression, no selfish manipulation, just the joy of being God’s gift to each other.
It is at this point instead that, from the beginning of the world, the serpent entered the scenario. It convinced man to go beyond the limits imposed by his condition as a creature, to set aside the plan of the Creator and to invent a new one, to follow his own whims and wiles, illuding oneself of obtaining his full realization and happiness.
Who is this snake? Nothing but the folly of man who, in a delirium of omnipotence, claims to replace God. He declares himself independent in making decisions about what is good and what is bad. This thrill of self-sufficiency tempts him subtly and quietly, as the serpent does and causes him to make choices of death.
Sin causes the break of all the harmonies and the reading presents the tragic consequences through images. Man who let himself be seduced by the “serpent” who is in him ends up out of place. God seeks him, calls him, “Where are you?”, but cannot find him (vv. 8-10), because he is not where he should be. As a father, the Lord is grieved of the evil that the son has done, is concerned. To recover him, he invites him to consider in what state he has reduced his own self. “Where are you?” means “Where did you end up? What have you done with your life?”
Man’s response: “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid myself” (v. 10) expresses the rejection of God’s presence, no longer considered as a friend, but as an opponent to be avoided, as a tyrant who threatens the independence and freedom.
Hiding oneself from God is to get away from prayer, reading the Bible, the life of the community, in order not to be questioned, not to be hampered in one’s choices. The man is afraid of God because he fears that he may deprive him of happiness; but in reality he does nothing but fall into the abyss of the most complete confusion.
The second consequence of the decision to distance oneself from God in moral choices is the departure from the brothers and sisters (vv. 12,16). Adam accuses Eve; she blames the serpent, both reproach God of having created a wrong world. It was you—Adam insinuates—who put me next to a person who, instead of leading me to you, has distracted me from your plan. I trusted her because you had given her to me.
This reaction is an attempt to put the blame of evil on a scapegoat, that could be the family in which one was born, society, upbringing and, ultimately, on God who wants that man could realize himself in meeting with his own kind, which, however, often, instead of taking him up, drags him down.
The woman, questioned in turn, blamed the serpent. As the snake is just the other side of our humanity, her words constitute a new accusation against God: you have done evil things, creating man as he is, capable of performing follies and crimes. Why didn’t you make him different, perfect? Why is this insidious “snake” that injects deadly poison in him?
After addressing the man and the woman, we would expect God to query the snake. However he does not, because the snake is not a creature different from man, but the counterpart of man, that which is opposed to God.
Will the serpent rule unchallenged forever?
From our point of view the human condition seems hopeless. Paul describes it in dramatic terms: “I cannot explain what is happening to me, because I do not do what I want to, but on the contrary the very things I hate. In this case, I am not the one striving toward evil, but it is sin, living in me. In fact I do not do the good I want, but the evil I hate. Alas for me! Who will free me from this being which is only death?” (Rom 7:15-24).
Will the defeat of man be final?
In the last part of the passage (vv. 14-15) God responds to this disturbing question.
The struggle between “the snake” and man will continue until the end of the world. Here’s what the outcome of the confrontation will be: “the snake” is declared accursed, that is deprived of supernatural and irresistible strength. It can be defeated and in fact it will be, as God assures, through live and efficacious images. It—God says—will lick the dust, that is, his defeat is inevitable and sensational (Ps 72:9); will crawl on the ground, as the defeated enemies are forced to do in front of the victor (Ps 72:11); will have its head crushed, and even if, to the end, it will attempt to implement its deadly pitfalls, but will not get its way.
It is the promise of universal salvation.
“Who will free me” from the slavery imposed by the “serpent” asked Paul (Rom 7:24). We will find the answer in today’s Gospel, but it is already announced in the passage of Genesis: one of the offspring of the woman will prevail on the “snake” and will crush its head.
Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1
This letter was written at a time when relations between Paul and the Corinthians were tense. Within the community meddlers had arisen. They caused tension and discord, spreading opinions contrary to the gospel and sought in every way to put a bad light on the person and work of the apostle. After years of toil and hardships endured for the sake of Christ, Paul also began to feel his strength failing.
In today’s passage he gives us a poignant reflection on his internal situation. I do not get discouraged—he says—although I realize that my body is wasting away. Physical weakening is not—he assures—an inner weakening. Every day I check on the growth of the new man destined to stay forever (v. 16). This thought that gives Paul joy and consolation is developed in the following verses (vv. 18-19) through the contrast between the present tribulation that is “light and momentary” and the future glory that is instead “eternal and immeasurable.” From this observation comes the invitation to look away from visible things and to focus it on those invisible, that are imperishable. Paul does not teach us to despise the things of this world. He does not encourage disengagement and disinterest in facing the problems of this world. He instead invites us to give them their right value. Material possessions cannot in any way be transformed into idols. They are not the ultimate goal of life. Man uses them to live, but does not live to accumulate them. He knows that this life is not definitive; it has a beginning and an end. Wise is the one whose program in mind is that it is only a gestation that prepares for birth. In the last verse (5:1), the apostle proclaims his joyous certainty: When this earthly dwelling is destroyed, we shall count on a heavenly dwelling not built by human hands.