First Sunday of Lent (A) | Fr Robert Verrill considers the Enemy that we conquer with the grace and example of Christ during Lent.
On this first Sunday of Lent, the readings have a rather demonic theme. Demons are mentioned on numerous occasions in the bible, but given our modern understanding of psychology and mental illness, it can be tempting to reinterpret such passages so as to understand them only in a figurative way and suppose that demons aren't actually real. This is a temptation CS Lewis warns us of in his satirical novel “the Screwtape Letters.” The novel takes the form of a series of letters from a senior demon called Screwtape to his nephew Wormword. Wormword has the job of tempting a human being who is referred to as the patient. Wormword’s more experienced uncle gives advice on how this should be done. In one of the letters, Screwtape writes to his nephew:
Our policy for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. But in the meantime, we must obey our orders. I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that 'devils' are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that he therefore cannot believe in you.
Now while the Screwtape Letters is a satirical work, the underlying message is very serious. Demons are real, and they are very manipulative and devious in the ways they try to frustrate God's plan of redemption. While we shouldn't foster an unhealthy interest in demons, neither should we choose not to believe in their existence, because if we don't believe in the existence of demons, then we won't believe we need to pray for protection against them. The reality is that demons are powerful creatures, and we can easily be deceived by them if we don't ask for divine assistance.
Demons themselves are fallen angels, and although angels are often depicted as having bodily forms, by nature, angels are purely immaterial, and this goes for demons as well. They are highly intelligent beings, far more intelligent than ourselves, but by nature, they are entirely without bodies.
In the book of Revelation the ancient serpent is identified as Satan, and this is rather significant because in Hebrew, Satan literally means the accuser. Satan resents God's favour to mankind, that out of mere dust God created human beings in His image and created them to be His friends. Satan, in his arrogance, despises God's generosity and he looks down on human existence as totally inferior to his own. Thus, Satan has set out to prove that mankind is unworthy of God's love and friendship, and the story of Genesis might suggest that Satan has been rather successful. After the Fall, one can imagine Satan the accuser saying to God, 'Look, I was right all along: mankind is weak and untrustworthy and doesn't want your grace and friendship.' This is the point that Satan has been trying to prove ever since.
But although in sinning, we reject God's love and friendship, God never rejects us. God, in becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ totally undermines Satan's evil scheming. The Incarnation shows once and for all that mankind is capable of being friends with God, and Jesus Christ, through His life, death and resurrection, makes this divine friendship possible for the whole of humanity.
Today's Gospel is really showing that for Satan, the game is up. Satan is never going to be able to prove his point, because Jesus Christ embodies the friendship of God. Jesus is the eternal Son of God, who has come into the world for our salvation, and no matter how much Satan tries to tempt Jesus, Jesus will never abandon His mission to save us. Jesus suffered so much in order that we could be free from Satan’s rule. In dying on the Cross, Jesus gave up everything for us, and this demands our response. Let us therefore renew our efforts this Lent to turn away from sin and to turn towards God, confident that Jesus will never abandon us to the power of Satan.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. of the Temptation of Christ depicted in one of the stained glass windows in the chapel of King's College, Cambridge.