Mark 5:1 They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes.2 When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. 3 This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. 4 For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. 7 He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” 8 For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” 10 And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.11 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. 12 The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” 13 He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.14 Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. 15 When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. 17 Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.18 As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19 Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
Preface: If you’re feeling discord and disconnect between a story full of pigs and evil spirits, today’s child dedication and Mother’s Day, I could say, “Well, this is the Gospel text for today.” But we can also try to connect the dots by remembering that Mothers’ Day in this country actually started not long after the American Civil War as an observance of solidarity among the mothers of fallen soldiers in both gray and blue uniforms, as a way of saying, “Never again.” In this baffling Gospel story there are also overtones of peace-making, at least through the peace that was restored to a man. But also through his liberation from spirits that had everything to do with violence and death, maybe even with militarism, when you consider their name, “Legion,” a technical, Roman military term in Latin, and their predilection for violence, death and lockstep discipline. All those possibilities suggested to me the following story:
By a special dispensation of God was I permitted to journey here to you through twenty centuries of time, to tell you my story. You know me as “Legion.” To my comrades in the Roman Army, I was “Mr. Legion,” such an enthusiastic and exemplary soldier was I, when they weren’t calling me, “Captain Ra-ra” behind my back. When I was promoted to Centurion, with about eighty soldiers under my command, I became “Lord Legion.”
I was born to be a soldier. Or so my father said, who also served in Rome’s legions, under both Julius Caesar and Pompey. He brought me up with stories of his exploits and adventures, so often told that I can repeat them all word for word, even today. He didn’t raise me as much as he trained me, like any raw recruit under his command. He only had to ask me, “Would a soldier of Caesar whimper about a few hours in the cold winter rain?” and I would try to stop my body from shivering and my teeth from chattering. Or “Would a soldier of Caesar cry about a nail in his foot or fish hook through the hand? Look at my scars. I didn’t cry. So, suck it up like a true legionnaire.”
For as much time as I spent with him, even his presence carried a dark, deep absence, in which I now suspect that he was wrestling with his own memories and regrets and the demons from his years of fighting and killing and worshiping the gods of war. As have I. The day I left for the service, my father finally told me the words I had so long wanted to hear: “Son, I am proud of you.” But my mother cried. She had always seemed uneasy with the way my father treated me.
There was another force, another presence in my youth that affected me deeply. I grew up on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, as part of a colony of Greeks, Romans and Syrians called Gerasa. After my father left the service, he bought some land and built a home there with money he had saved, and his spoils of war.Then he married, settled down, raised olives and pigs, and a family. More like a squad.
But all around us, especially on the other side of the lake, were Jews, people of the One God. “Atheists” we sometimes called them, because they didn’t accept all our gods and goddesses. Especially not Mars, the god of war, to whom I was dedicated at birth, and after whom I was named: Gaius Martius Vertelius.
Though our two communities kept their distances, I had one childhood friendship with a Jew about my age, named Thaddeus. He sometimes came with his father to sell fruits at a market near our town. One day Thaddeus told me with excitement that he and his family were going to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. When I asked him what that was about, he recounted a tale about how his God had liberated his ancestors from slavery in Egypt by splitting the Sea in two, so they could walk to freedom on dry land. Then, when Egyptian soldiers pursued them, the waters closed over them and they drowned. I laughed and told him that such a story was unbelievable. I never saw him again after that, until much, much later.
What I found unbelievable was not so much that a god might split the sea to let people walk across. That’s what gods do, right? No, what I found unbelievable was that any king or commanding officer would give the command to charge in between standing walls of water, or that a professional army would carry out such a command. Didn’t they have the sense not to tempt the enemy’s god who split the sea? Or did the king think he was a god himself? Or even, a greater god than the god who split the sea?
But during my years of service in the Roman Legion, I witnessed orders and commands that were at least as lame-brained and self-defeating. And I confess that in the heat of battle, or for fear of punishment, I passed them along, or carried them out. Sometimes I not only feel guilty for doing that, but for being one of the few to survive.
Furthermore, the king in whose name I received those orders, and carried out those commands, does indeed think himself a god. Its on all our coins: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of God.” In the ranks, we even burned incense to him like a god, and swore oaths to him, even uttered prayers, to him, and in his name. In effect, we worshiped Caesar, along with Mars, our god of war. We weren’t just soldiers; we were priests and evangelists in a military religion. One that required human sacrifice.
The basic tenet of this religion is this phrase that we often sang or chanted in Latin: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” “Sweet and noble is it to die for one’s country.” I not only believed this religion, I fell in love with it. Nothing thrilled me more than marching to battle: the sound of trumpets blaring and drums rolling to our rhythmic tread and our marching songs, daring and arrogant songs in which we gave full vent to hatred and contempt for civilians and our enemies, and to our lust for blood and bodies, songs that would have made our mothers blush for shame that we were their sons. Seeing the glint of sunlight off our shields and spears, and the snapping and flapping of scarlet banners in the wind, with the golden eagle emblems and the image of Caesar, tears would well in my eyes and chills would go up my spine. These were religious experiences that made me feel invincible. And immortal.
Invincible we were. Well, mostly. Immortal….well, we were soon disabused of that idea. Whatever the cause for which we went to battle, be it king or country, it was soon forgotten for this: that our fallen comrades should not have died in vain.
Most of my service I spent on the eastern front, against Persia. My elite unit was constantly in the thick of battle. We called ourselves “The Indispensable Expendables.” Over time I found myself struggling with this strange but growing obsession: increasingly I envied the dead. Its called “battle fatigue,” the gravitational force that too much proximity with death exerts. For the dead looked peaceful compared to the torment that was growing in me, when at night, or in moments of quiet, images and memories of what I had seen or done in battle came rushing back to mind. I found it hard to sleep some nights as the faces of my fallen comrades, or of men whom I had killed, came flooding back into my memory.
No, it is neither sweet nor noble to die for one’s country. Even less so to kill. I couldn’t help thinking not only of the dead, but of their wives or mothers or sweethearts or children who would mourn them for their rest of their lives. If I dwelt on these thoughts and memories, they tormented me like fire in the soul. If I tried to ignore them or bansih them with work, or with distractions or drink, I found my soul growing hard and cold, so that I would withdraw from, or even mistreat and abuse, my most trusted comrades. I began to understand how it is that some of the most skilled and experienced soldiers could throw their lives away recklessly and needlessly in battle, even those with the least amount of time before their discharges, with the most to look forward to in retirement. They feared the thought of re-fighting their wars over and over inside their heads the way my father and I have.
As my torment grew, my service and my leadership suffered. War moved from outside my body to inside my head and my heart, so that despite my best efforts, my soul began to break up into jagged, separate pieces, many of them like armies at war with each other. The gods of battle whom I had worshiped, whom I had consulted with magic rituals and the reading of animal entrails, were no help. They have neither patience nor mercy for weakness. Soon, I am told, I was taking orders from officers no one could see, and giving orders to soldiers who were not there. Eventually I was expelled and sent home, with what little money I had not wasted on drinking, diviners and soothsayers. So much for our eternal comradeship.
I arrived home a wrecked and broken man, a beggar bereft of even clothing. I was glad that my father could not see my condition: he had died before I returned. My torment and confusion were such that even my mother could not shelter me. So I sought shelter among the dead, whose tombs were for me temples of the death that I worshiped. To my scars of battle I added scars from jagged rocks, as though I could atone for blood I had shed with blood of my own. There I could finally weep and wail for my lost brothers. Had my mother not at least brought me food, I would have starved to death.
Do not think that all my torment and confusion were caused by devils with horns and hooves, poking me with fiery pitchforks. But do not think there was none of that, either. On one hand, I was tormented enough by all the contradictions of my life: “Live by killing; make peace by waging war; protect the tender, gentle domesticity of hearth and home by being hard and brutal; protect civilization by mocking and destroying everything civil; defend your home in such a way that you can never again feel at home; be glad you survived, and feel guilty for it.” Those contradictions are enough to drive anyone crazy.
But if you believe in a Holy Spirit, then do not presume that there are no unholy spirits. After all, I had invited them into myself whenever I consulted diviners and made vows and sacrfices to Mars and Caesar. They come when called, and they cluster around the wounds in mens’ souls like flies, infecting our traumas with their lies, even our self-inflicted traumas.
And that was the state of inner civil war and alien occupation in which the Nazarene and his companions found me. Like invading legionnaires of a peaceful army, they came out of a boat and up the beach. One of them looked strangely familiar. Jews they were, I could tell, men of the one God who had never failed me nor mocked me nor demanded my life in sacrifice. Something in me was drawn to their God, while something else just as strong in me was repelled by fear of condemnation and rejection. Is that not true of all of us? While my body ran toward them, my soul ran the other way, wailing in fear.
I’m told that I screamed at the leader among them, but that was someone else screaming through me, while I was far away in the same place. I’m told that the leader demanded to know my name, and that I said, “My name is Legion,” but I don’t know if that was me, or them. Then I heard someone asking to be sent into a herd of pigs nearby. Pigs? I didn’t remember any pigs.
More sensations like when you awaken, confused from napping too long, and it seemed like I could hear my former company commander shouting, “Form ranks, forward charge!” Then….Splash! Just like Pharoah’s army charging into the sea.
I remember lying on the ground, feeling all spent and washed out, like when you’ve had the wind knocked out of you or are coming to from a blow to the head. As my vision returned, I saw against the sky the dark face of their leader, his black eyes looking into mine. When it struck me how Jewish he looked, I prepared myself to be judged and found wanting. But these eyes, though they seemed to see all and know all, also seemed to forgive all and to love all. Like my mother’s eyes. A strange, long unfamiliar feeling began to stir in me. It was hope.
Just then the strangely familiar man also came into view and said, “Your friends are coming.” Then he cried out to them, “Welcome, friends. Jesus has just returned your son and brother to you!” But all I heard from them was, “What about all our pigs?” and “What gives you the right to destroy our livelihood? Go away! Now! Jews aren’t welcome here!”
That’s when it struck me: I was not the only man afflicted by evil spirits around here. My own family and friends and neighbors cared more about their pigs and their profits than they did about me! Just as I had been demonized by militaristic spirits, they were under the influence of commercial spirits, even, the god of money and profit, whom the Syrians call “Mammon.” That kind of spirit possession is all the more difficult to recognize for being so common, respectable and rewarding.
That’s when I knew who my real friends were. So I begged the Nazarene to take me with him. There was no telling what my own people might do to me. But the Nazarene sadly said, No, I should stay here and tell everyone what his God had done for me. I understood: I might not get much better treatment on his side of the lake. So I stayed. Or I tried to. But the more I told people about the Nazarene and his power, the more they asked me, “So when is he going to pay for our pigs?”
When they started talking about selling me into slavery to compensate for those pigs, I left and found occasional day labor in a town closer to the Jewish side of the lake. My mother moved in with me. I also attended a local synagogue, sitting in the back behind the lattice screen with the women, the children and some other interested, sympathetic Gentiles. We were called, “God-fearers.”
Several years passed like that before that strangely familiar man showed up again, at that very synagogue, the one who came with the Nazarene the day I was liberated from demonic torment, the one who had addressed my kinsmen. Being a visitor, the rabbi asked him if he had any word of greeting or instruction to bring. He then told the story of a Nazarene carpenter and rabbi who healed the sick and delivered the demonized. This man, he said, is Israel’s promised king, who will also bring the Gentiles into the family of Abraham. But this, I learned is a king who went forth in battle to die as a ransom for his subjects, rather than sending them out to die for him. Such self-giving love even went out to his enemies, the ones who killed him so shamefully on a Roman cross. He even died for his enemies, rather than killing them.
When the speaker asked who would like to embrace this king as their own, I realized three things: One was that this was a king I could serve; secondly, that he had already served me, by sending my demons into those pigs; and thirdly, the man telling this news was my childhood friend, Thaddeus. How fitting that he was talking about a new Passover deliverance for all people, and not just the Jews.
That must be another reason why the Nazarene told me to stay, so that when his disciples returned, I might become a colonist for his kingdom, and a leader in his army of peace. Now I am the soldier I was born to be, armed with love, patience and prayer. A new Spirit, the Holy Spirit, inhabits me, so that I can worship and serve the God of peace, a God who embraces us in our weakness, and who always gives us new chances.
And that is why I was permitted to come speak to you. Though much has changed over the last twenty centuries, still “there is nothing new under the sun.” Mars and Mammon still demand worship, war and human sacrifice. All throughout the world, nations and people still render them homage and obedience. On the way here, I saw soldiers rise up out of trenches to charge across a field of battle, just as my comrades and I used to do. And I saw them mowed down like grass before a sickle just as so many of my comrades were. To them you have erected monuments still bearing the very words I once chanted, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”
But our citizenship is in heaven, where reigns our rightful king, who died for us, who died even for his enemies, and who conquered death by means of death. For such a king, and such a kingdom, it is indeed sweet and noble to die. And to live. Forever.