The glory of these forty days (borrowing the words of a song well-known and sung during this season), aside from giving us more opportunities to live the Christian calling to holiness through interior conversion, resides also on the fact that it serves as a prelude to the great baptismal liturgy within the Paschal Triduum (Holy Thursday evening to the Easter Vigil),celebrated on the night before Easter Sunday. Lent has a baptismal aspect, because it prepares us to celebrate the event of the suffering, death and resurrection of Our Lord, in which we all share in through our baptism. Celebrating this season with this in mind helps us to take better advantage of the graces that are offered to us during Lent.
“Do you renounce Satan and all his works?” Among the questions asked during the liturgy of baptism brings to mind the figure of the prince of darkness. Nowadays, the mention of the concept would bring about diverse reactions. People could be indifferent, or be vaguely (sometimes morbidly) interested, others cynical, while others would smile and would even imagine cute baby devils dressed in red and sporting cute little red horns (if there are cute cherubs, is it out of the way to imagine cute devils as well?) Speaking of the devil, I remember the late archbishop Fulton Sheen talking about a woman returning home after an afternoon of rather carefree shopping. When her husband saw the bill, he asked his wife rather testily: “The moment you tried on the dress, didn’t you tell the devil, “Get behind me Satan!”? The wife saucily replied, “Well as a matter of fact I did, and he told me it looked really good from the behind”.
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. This Sunday brings us to consider the figure of Jesus being led into the silent wilderness. In the course of his public life he would seek refuge time and again in deserted spaces in order to be alone with his Father. But in the gospel episode, not only is he alone with his Father; in the desert the first confrontation between the Christ and Satan takes place. Jesus is tempted by the Devil, though not like us, tempted even from within through our human weakness. The Lord perceives the subtle insinuations of the enemy from the outside.
The Devil. Satan. Beelzebul. Belial. Lucifer. On June 29, 1972, Pope Paul VI caused consternation among many when he said in a homily that “the smoke of Satan has entered into the temple of God”. Many people where puzzled at the mention of the archenemy, not only perhaps because the fact that the Pope would mention it at all was perturbing, but also because many people had relegated the figure of the man’s greatest enemy to oblivion. But the fact is, the Devil continues to be alive in this modern day and age, and not only alive, but also active, very active. Pope John Paul II made mention of this fact when he made a visit to the sanctuary of St. Michael in Gargano, Italy, affirming that the devil is indeed alive and at work in the world, and that the disorder that we see in society, and the internal division in man is not only due to the effects of original sin, but is also because of the dark and infesting activity of Satan, of this saboteur of man’s equilibrium (cfr. May 24, 1987, Sanctuary of St. Michael, Gargano)
As we ponder on the encounter between the Light and the forces of darkness in the gospel this first Sunday of Lent we are invited to consider that we ourselves have to wage this battle. Nobody is immune from the attacks of the Devil; in fact this was the reason why the Lord chose to be attacked by Satan, because He desired to be identified with all of us who are always attacked and tempted, so that we may be identified with Him who came out victorious from the fight. Our Lenten journey through the desert alerts us to the fact that the Christian struggle for holiness is also a struggle against the forces of evil, evil that is not a mere cosmic force, but who is a personal being, an intelligent and powerful one, who has many names and assumes many faces so as to deceive and destroy. The devil is capable of inflicting us harm in many ways, but normally and more efficiently he acts in this world inducing us to abandon the side of God, to cease in the struggle to be holy, to leave the life of union with God by abandoning the life of prayer. He is the Tempter, and it is through temptation that he deceives and drags more souls hellbound.
Temptation in itself is not a sin, as we know; but one has to keep well in mind that between temptation and sin there is a fine line. Being realistic as a Christian entails accepting that life is of temptations: life is never a straight line. Christians of the Middle Ages had marble labyrinths etched on the floors of the great cathedrals that they built, not for any magical or esoteric reason, but rather to enunciate this fact: it is a journey through countless twists, turns and dead ends, but that finally leads to the center, the end of a long and difficult journey.
We ought not see temptation as a mere invitation to sin, though effectively it is. In Jesus Christ, this becomes an opportunity to defeat the Evil One. St. Augustine of Hippo, himself not a stranger to temptation, writes that “no one knows himself except through trial, or receives a crown except after victory, or strives except after an enemy or temptations”. A temptation is not merely an invitation to go down and bite the dust, as Satan would have us do; aided always with the grace of God—and our common sense—it is an opportunity to trust in the power of grace over wickedness, and rise up.
Faced with temptation, no one is ever alone, though the Devil would have us believe that we are. Commenting on his own experience of grace, St. Augustine comments that “the one who cries from the ends of the earth is in anguish, but is not left on his own”(Commentary on the Psalms). Ages back, St. Paul had said in the same vein: “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more”(cfr. Rom 5:20). Always and in everywhere, the grace of God is ready for us, for as long as we ask for it in the opportune time. It is also very important of course to always avoid any occasion that could induce us to sin. If one plays with fire, as they say, expect to be burnt. Much common sense is needed for sanctity.
Finally, the episode of Jesus being tempted in the desert ends in victory; and this should be something that urges us on in the struggle. I would end by turning once again to the Doctor of Grace, St. Augustine: If in Christ we have been tempted, in him we overcome the devil. Do you think only of Christ’s temptations and fail to think of his victory? See yourself as tempted in him, and see yourself as victorious in him. Amen.