The Black Death 

The Middle Ages ushered in a period when piety flirted with superstition. Eucharistic elements gained reverence and dedication, yet people seldom consumed, and only reluctantly.[1] Clergy undertook secular projects funded by stipends collected from private Masses. War, famine, and disease engulfed much of the world, and the church struggled to articulate a comprehensive retort when the Black Death arrives. Bewildered civil leaders, confused a public easily seduced by sorcery, witchcraft, and folklore. Malnourished minds generated starving hearts dragging the entire period only deeper into despair. The church began amassing distorted sacramental praxis, incompatible with the Divine Physician’s healing design.

A sacramental economy dismisses exaggeration, dramatization, or sensationalism, keenly aware of their entrapment properties. Superstition flourishes in environments laden with distorted piety, prevalent throughout medieval times. Jesus employed allegory, hyperbole, and personification when communicating, but never magic. God’s first commandment received by Moses explicitly prohibits humankind from approaching these false arts.

         

          Superstition is a deviation from religious feeling and the practices; this feeling imposes. It can even                affect the worship we offer the true God when one attributes an importance in some way magical to            certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. Apart from the interior dispositions, they demand,                  attributing the efficacy of prayers or sacramental signs to mere external performance leans                            towards superstition. [2]

The Galilean chapters in St. Luke’s Gospel feature multiple exorcisms authenticating Jesus’ healing methodology. Aware of the Divine Physician’s Trinitarian origins, shouting demons immediately succumbed to Jesus' silence command and undergo banishment. Eyewitnesses observed these events with astonishment, asking a critical question. “What is there about his word? For he commands the unclean spirits and they come out.”[3] God has no need to negotiate with Satan’s band of demons, and the Incarnate Word comfortably sources Trinitarian omnipotence to rebuke ever-prowling evil.[4] The demonic possessions over which Jesus officiated cleansed the interior of the person by first muting evil’s voice.

Another example from Luke’s Gospel reveals the fundamental disposition that Jesus seeks from persons preparing to receive physical healing. A Roman centurion credited with building a Jewish synagogue displayed affection towards the subservient nation and recognized the similarities he shared with Jesus. A government agent collegially welcomes Jesus into his home, with the endorsement of religious elders. This time, it is Jesus who expresses amazement and announced that a Gentile’s faith measured greater than any he has witnessed throughout Israel. Jesus' confidence recognized conducive physical, emotional, and spiritual healing conditions, not nationality, race, or religion.[5] During the bubonic plague, sacraments drifted towards weak and superficial structures and away from authoritative Gospel teachings. 

Christians only really survive the Middle Ages protected by God’s promise and Jesus’ authority to admonish evil and injustice. The Nazarene's healing ministry configured neophytes for social purposes greater than demographic or quantitative expansion. Social enlightenment and relational intimacy defined measures of sacramental effectiveness. The Galilean teacher outlined precise healing steps beginning with prayers lifted to God, without any sensationalism. The exorcism text Mother Church delivers at baptism aligns with Jesus’ merciful, beautiful, and holy approach. Spinning heads and supernatural techno- demonstrations are never normative acts before the people of God.  Listen!

           Almighty and ever-living God, you sent your only Son into the world to cast out the power of                              Satan, the spirit of evil, to rescue from the kingdom of darkness and bring humankind into the                            splendor of your kingdom of light.

           

          We pray for this person, set them free from original sin, make them a temple of your glory, and                          send your Holy Spirit to dwell with them. We ask this through Christ, our Lord.[6]

Eastern Orthodoxy offers three solemn prayers of exorcism during baptismal celebrations. Presiders likens themselves, in this tradition, to warriors by employing military language, for example, “soldier for souls.”[7] Before his conversion, St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) aspired to join the papal crusades and reclaim the Holy Land for Christianity. Both military and religious initiations incorporated purification rituals, and Orthodoxy upholds similar praxis, even for infant baptism. Readied catechumens undergo complete submersion into cleansing water three times, emerging from the amniotic-like flow, into a new creation. Reverence and solemnity describe the ambiance Orthodoxy engenders in baptism, wiping clean all birthing stains. Immediately, the newly baptism receive Holy Chrismation, Rites of Ablution, and Tonsure. The People of God receive the new Christian, which embodies a purified individual with elevated communal dignity.

Roman Catholic rites of exorcism set the stage for a new view of God’s love for the human condition. Modern spiritualists easily observe the parallels between social baptism and public health orders pleading with people to wash and keep clean. Medieval people, however, generally lacked running water and modern amenities; although, public and natural bathing facilities accommodated some level of personal hygiene standards. Rites of exorcism, similarly invoked a personal and social call to spiritual cleanliness, notably through ongoing baptismal praxis. Receiving baptism acknowledged an obligation to pursue continuous spiritual purification. Just as people repeatedly undertake physical hygiene exercises, spiritualists often return to the baptismal font for cleansing. A container placed near the entrance to many Roman Catholic churches welcomes and sanitizes believers recommitting themselves to baptism under the Trinitarian formula.[8]   Living a path charted through prayer, conversion, and baptism necessarily points believers to Holy Eucharist and the eternal banquet prepared by Jesus in God’s kingdom. 

          Since baptism signifies liberation from sin and its instigator, the devil, the presiders pronounce                          one or more exorcisms over the candidate. The celebrant anoints the individual with                                            catechumens’ oil or lays hands on them, explicitly renouncing Satan. Thus prepared, one                                    becomes able to confess the church’s faith to which they receive endowment by baptism.[9]

 

Before the widespread deployment of printed materials, religious formation depended on expert storytellers. The Middle Ages produced a period of overzealous religiosity, who combined with creative and traditional storytelling, went so far as to attribute the Black Death to God’s wrath. Mathematics, science, and data eventually gained a voice in the public square, but rhetoric dominated this period.  Historian, N. Cantor commented.

         

          Somebody had not yet been invented the scientific method. When faced with a problem,                                    people in the Middle Ages found the solution through diachronic (as opposed to synchronic)                            analysis. The diachronic is the historical narrative, horizontally developing through time: “Tell                              me the story.” With their fervent historical imagination, medieval people were exceptionally                                good at giving diachronic explanations for the bubonic plague outbreak.[10]   

The deadly illness ravaging East and West between 1347 and 1352 AD originated in central Asia near Islamic and Christian belief systems. Military personnel and an emerging mercantile sector exchanged guilt for transporting the mysterious killer throughout Asia and Europe. With the Black Death raging forth, people’s faith underwent testing to the limit. Various potions and spells achieved frantic endorsement in hopes of curbing the out of control pandemic. Rubbing dead snakes across one’s body convinced some people of its powers to attract evil and draw out the infection.[11] Substandard air quality signaled a demonic presence requiring immediate replacement with sweet incense or other pleasantly emitting aromas. Quarantine strategies only exasperated the contagious problem, as wealthy, city, dwellers and poorer, rural, homesteaders merely exchanged locations. More affluent people scattered to the country’s fresh air, while the peasant class, driven from their farms, flooded the city seeking economic opportunities.

A plague responsible for reducing the world’s population by an estimated fifty percent delivered a significant challenge to churchgoers’ faith. How could people imagine the presence of God during the Black Death? Did God initiate or enable a plague to control the human population or to punish?  Why did prayers, fasting, and flagellation seemingly fall short of appeasing God’s fury? The Living God expected a much different response from humankind than shallow acts of duty. Lovers desire communion with their beloved.

The Gospel healings always lead persons to a Eucharistic response and the answer for war, disease, and famine. Underdeveloped medicine, releasing hurried treatments during the Black Death, alongside empty church rhetoric, proved insufficient then and does again. In the Gospel of St Luke, ten lepers received physical cleansing, but only a foreigner accepted new Eucharistic relationship with Jesus.

          Moreover, one of them, realizing Jesus had healed him, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and                he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply, “Ten people                      received cleansing, did they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to                give thanks to God?” Then he said to him, stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”[12]

Shortly after the Black Death subsided, papal operations shifted from Rome to the French city Avignon. The church suffered throughout this period from divided allegiances to as many as three popes. After years in exile, the Cardinals eventually reunited under the papacy of Martin V.  Western and Eastern branches of Christianity approached reunification, still, the damage inflicted by a health pandemic incubated long and deep into medieval discontent. The Council of Florence attempted to remedy the ecclesial leadership dilemma, by introducing controversial dogma of papal supremacy, which promulgates:

          “We likewise define that the Holy Apostolic See, and the Roman Pontiff, hold primacy                                               throughout the entire world; and that the Roman Pontiff himself is the successor of blessed                               Peter, the chief of the Apostles. The true vicar of Christ, and that he is the head of the entire                                 church, and the Father and teacher of all Christians; and that full power was given to him in                               blessed Peter by our Lord Jesus Christ, to feed, rule, and govern the universal church.”[13]

 

 

 

 

 

[1] In direct opposition to the Bread of Life, discourse. From the Gospel of John, 6:25-58.

[2] From the Catechism of the Catholic Church, article 2111.

[3] From the Gospel of Luke, 4:36.

[4] From the Gospel of John, 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”

[5] From the Gospel of Luke, 7:1-10.

[6] From the Roman Catholic Rite of Baptism, Prayer of Exorcism proclaimed after the invocation of the saints and before anointing with the oil of catechumens.

[7] From the Prayers of St John Chrysostom (344-407) Prayers of Deliverance for General Use.

[8] The Trinitarian formula prayed at valid baptisms originates from multiple New Testament revelations. Jesus’ baptism, Luke 3:21-22; John the Baptist’s testimony, John 1:29-34; Peter’s preaching at Pentecost, Acts of the Apostles 2:37-39. 

[9] From the Catechism of the Catholic Church, article 1237.

[10] From N. Cantor, (2015)  In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made, p.17

[11] Perhaps derived from the Synoptic Gospels in which Jesus draws a Legion of demons from a man. The demons project into swine who charge into the lake drowning themselves. Luke 8:26 – 39; Mark 5:1 – 20; Mathew 8:28 – 34.

[12] From the Gospel of St. Luke, 17:15-19.

[13] From the Papal bull, Exsultate Deo, (1439)

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