And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region. (Matthew 8:28-34)
The writings of the Psalmist sometimes strike me as overblown and melodramatic. The author of Psalm 42 writes, “My tears have been my food day and night…” (verse 3). In Psalm 88:18 the same author exclaims, “darkness is my only companion.” Elsewhere, King David asks for protection from the “wicked who do me violence…deadly enemies who surround me” (Ps. 17:9). I doubt if I could write a caricature of Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh so consistently despondent.
But if we cannot not comprehend the feelings represented in the Psalms, their presence in the Bible exhorts us to work towards an understanding of them. David’s are the cries of someone attuned to the sufferings of Christ on the cross, to the pain that God feels at our consistent rejection of Him. But how would we experience the loss of being distanced from God, if we cannot relate to a nearness to him—as distinct from our own feelings of well-being?
Probably I do not understand the lows of David’s spiritual exhaustion because I cannot relate to his spiritual highs. I have no doubt that many of my friends and classmates can relate to this. We are stuck contentedly in the grossly comfortable ease of a middle- and upper-middle-class modern society. We have not been bothered to challenge ourselves spiritually, because we have no need to—things are all right just the way they are.
Sure, like the townspeople in the Gospel reading for today (Matthew 8:34), we went out to visit Jesus, because we heard he might offer a distraction from the boredom of pursuing the American Dream. We promptly noticed his counter-cultural teaching of poverty, chastity, public repentance, and sacrifice; we saw his distinctly non-bourgeois, scratchy robes, and left. After Jesus had cast out demons, the Gospel says, freeing two men from the grips of Satan, the townspeople came to see him, and then asked that he kindly leave (verse 34).
Sometimes though, we can relate to David’s plea, “Why have your forgotten me?” (Psalm 42:9). But the emotion we do have, our cries of loneliness and abandonment, become negligible when we contextualize them in the loneliness of God made man, Jesus slandered by humans as an emissary of the devil, called demon-possessed himself (Matthew 12:24). We feel forgotten by Him, we do not recognize His calling, because we cannot understand His language—as spiritual children, we are stuck perpetually in our baby-talk.
It is hard to understand either the afflictions and penance of Christ, or of David, because we do not understand self-denial, or self-discipline that is not ultimately to improve our standing in society. Instead, we wipe away our tears with more work, turning rightful emotion into ourselves rather than as an opportunity to share in the sufferings of others. Our culture is distinctly anti-ascetic: any denial of self has no place in its vocabulary. But the lives of Christians before us teach that Jesus’ of self-denial is the only way to be in tune with his calling.
We assume that all warfare is physical, so David’s struggle seems pathetic. But every great Christian would remind us that the important battles are ones we cannot see, and in which we are ultimately helpless by our own strength.
That is why we should embrace the ascetic aspect of Advent. We will not relate to David, or to Christ, if we cannot relate to their sufferings. Fasting, denial of some of our desires, extra prayer for those who suffer more than us, anything that requires us to give up faith in ourselves, and lay it at the feet of God. As Paul writes, we are to be “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10). The hope, then, is that through experience of Godly self-denial we will come to understand the “adult” language of the mature Christian.
Bryce McDonald ’21 is a junior in Leverett House studying Classics and Philosophy.