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Hallo again to all.

In the traditional lectionaries of the Western Church, this stretch of Epiphanytide was appointed for the reading of St Matthew's account of the Gadarene Swine. Matthew has the demons within two possessed men acknowledge Jesus as the son of God; Mark and Luke have just one person, but the shape of the story is familiar in each iteration.

Jesus is at Galilee and has just encouraged the disciples' faith by calming the waves. At a place that may be Gadara or Gerasa in modern Jordan (you can visit and see the spot, as we did last year), the little band encounter a man or men living among the tombs and harming themselves. With a single word—Go—Jesus sends the demons out of the men, and they go into a herd of two thousand swine. The swine then drown themselves.

It is not a gospel miracle that has inspired hymnody or festivals, even though it is remarkable for being our Lord's first healing and one of his relatively few interactions with animals. We encounter him often enough in connection with fish, riding on a donkey, born in a stable, presenting birds as an example for believers, mentioning dogs and sheep in his teachings, and accompanied by turtledoves at his first visit to the Temple.

This passage is different because of its scope—two thousand swine—and because it involves death on such a vast scale. The gospels provide little in the way of commentary, and this has troubled the consciences of humans as we have come to think of animals as part of God's creation: worthy of protection from cruelty and even having rights as part of God's handiwork.

A very close reading of the text provides the curious insight that Jesus does not send the legion of demons into the herd of swine. He sends them out of the possessed person, and they enter the ritually unclean animals of their own accord. Jesus has done a dominical job of sorting: removing that which is harmful from the human soul, and allowing it to associate with what was deemed impure in the Levitical code.

The story surfaces on Sundays now just once every three years, but its arc is important. It has about it a host of wonders. The healing power of Christ has already moved into Gentile territory, outside of Israel proper and where pigs are cultivated. The forces of darkness acknowledge Jesus' divinity even before the disciples themselves understand it. The Lord finds a person or persons whose internal disorderedness has caused them to be separated from community with others, and his action is a liberation and restoration from this separation. The self-drowning of the swine is a movement from the new space of human wholeness into the primordial chaos of the watery depths. The cost of this miracle, like some other miracles, is extensive and economic; we never learn of the suffering of the swineherds whose livelihoods have been undermined in the demonstration of God's healing power.

The miracle of the Gadarene Swine is a miracle of God's attention to the world of those who struggle with mental illness, and those whose ill-health has caused them to lose the nurturing society of their fellows. The demoniac was as alone as he was possessed. In a modern world in which the manifest difficulties of personal isolation have led to the United Kingdom's appointment of a government-level Minister of Loneliness, perhaps we need this gospel passage more than once in each three-year cycle. It is the wonderful, bizarre, and mysterious background of the deep gentleness in the hymn:

In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow thee.

See you next week.

Our Signatures

Richard Mammana


All of us at Anglicans Online

21 January 2018

* Mark's telling and Luke's never rise to the level of a Sunday gospel passage, though Matthew's does; the former two come up in the daily office.

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