Satan Tempting Jesus
It is very odd that in the wake of the bloodiest century in history – a century when tens of millions of human beings were shot, starved, gassed and incinerated with superhuman ingenuity – even many religious leaders are embarrassed to talk about the devil. In fact, it is more than odd. It is revealing. Mass murder and exquisitely organized cruelty are not just really big “mental health” problems. They are sins that cry out to heaven for justice, and they carry the fingerprints of an Intelligence who is personal, gifted, calculating and powerful.
The devil is only unbelievable if we imagine him as the black monster of medieval paintings, or think The Inferno is intended as a literal road map to hell. Satan was very real for Jesus. He was very real for Paul and the other great saints throughout history. And he is profoundly formidable. If we want a sense of the grandeur of the Fallen Angel before he fell, the violated genius of who Satan really is, we can take a hint from the Rilke poem The Angels:
. . . when they spread their wings
they waken a great wind through the land:
as though with his broad sculptor-hands
God was turning
the leaves of the dark book of the Beginning.
This is the kind of Being – once glorious, but then consumed by his own pride — who is now the Enemy of humanity. This is the Pure Spirit who betrayed his own greatness. This is the Intellect who hates the Incarnation because through it, God invites creatures of clay like you and me to take part in God’s own divinity. There is nothing sympathetic about Satan; only tragedy and loss and enduring, brilliant anger.
In 1929 the philosopher Raissa Maritain wrote.
“Lucifer has cast the strong though invisible net of illusion upon us. He makes one love the passing moment above eternity, uncertainty above truth. He persuades us that we can only love creatures by making Gods of them. He lulls us to sleep (and he interprets our dreams); he makes us work. Then does the spirit of man brood over stagnant waters. Not the least of the devil’s victories is to have convinced artists and poets that he is their necessary, inevitable collaborator and the guardian of their greatness. Grant him that, and soon you will grant him that Christianity is unpracticable. Thus does he reign in this world.”
If we do not believe in the devil, sooner or later we will not believe in God. We cannot cut Lucifer out of the ecology of salvation. Satan is not God’s equal. He is a created being subject to God and already, by the measure of eternity, defeated. Nonetheless, he is the first author of pride and rebellion, and the great seducer of man. Without him the Incarnation and Redemption do not make sense, and the cross is meaningless. Satan is real. There is no way around this simple truth.
We live in an age that imagines itself as post-modern and post-Christian. It is a time defined by noise, urgency, action, utility and a hunger for practical results. But there is nothing really new about any of this. I think St. Paul would find our age rather familiar. For all of the rhetoric about “hope and change” in our politics, our urgencies hide a deep unease about the future; a kind of well-manicured selfishness and despair.
The Emptiness Hurts
The world around us has a hole in its heart, and the emptiness hurts. Only God can fill it. In our baptism, God called each of us here today to be his agents in that work. Like St. Paul, we need to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (Jas 1:22). We prove what we really believe by our willingness, or our refusal, to act on what we claim to believe.
You Are Being Called
We have an obligation as Catholics to study and understand the world around us. We have a duty not just to penetrate and engage it, but to convert it to Jesus Christ. That work belongs to all of us equally: clergy, laity and religious. We are missionaries. That is our primary vocation; it is hardwired into our identity as Christians. God calls each of us to different forms of service in his Church. But we are all equal in baptism. And we all share the same mission of bringing the Gospel to the world, and bringing the world to the Gospel.
The Real Issue is a Crisis of Faith
Our real issue is a crisis of faith. Do we believe in God or not? Are we on fire with a love for Jesus Christ, or not? Because if we are not, nothing else matters. If we are, then everything we need in order to do God’s work will follow, because he never abandons his people.
God calls us to leave here today and make disciples of all nations. But he calls us first to love him. If we do that, and do it zealously, with all our hearts – the rest will follow.
Archbishop Charles Chaput