TEXT: 1st Sunday of Lent, February 14, 2016
1st Sunday of Lent
February 14, 2016
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Today we read how when Jesus was about to begin his public ministry,
which culminated in his Cross and Resurrection,
He first prepared Himself by going off into the desert
to fast and pray for forty days.
Our observance of Lent is specifically patterned after our Lord’s example,
as we prepare ourselves to remember and celebrate
his Death and Resurrection.
And so we try to make a desert of our own,
by the penitential practices of self-denial and self-discipline,
prayer and sorrow for our sins.
And if we do it right we will surely find Christ in that desert
—as we draw close to him and him to us.
But we’ll also find someone else in our Lenten desert
–the same person that Christ found when he went out: the devil.
Christ came to conquer the sins of mankind,
which means he must vanquish the devil, who is the first instigator of sin,
as we find in the book of Genesis.
There the devil is described as the serpent who tempts Eve,
and so brings about the original sin and fall of man.
From then on the devil, the father of sin,
became the enemy not only of God but of mankind
—that’s what the word “satan” means in Hebrew: “enemy.”
But actually he’s been our enemy even before the creation of man.
Scripture tells us that the devil, or devils—for they are legion—
were originally simply angels.
But at some point, they turned on God.
The great fathers and theologians of the Church
believe that what happened was that
God revealed to all the angels that one day
he would create a lesser creature, below the angels—mankind—
and eventually God the Son would become a man.
Not all of the angels accepted this.
In fact, the most glorious angel, called “Lucifer”, or the “lightbearer,”
refused to accept that he would have to kneel before a lowly man,
even if he was God the Son,
and in his deadly pride replied to God: “non serviam”— “I will not serve.”
And, as the Book of Revelation tells us, a third of the angels agreed with Lucifer,
and “the great red dragon…swept away a third of the stars of heaven
and threw them to the earth.”
God the Son, before he became man, witnessed all this,
and as a man, Jesus, would tell his apostles:
“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”
Just like that, in the blink of an angelic eye, like a bolt of lightning,
a third of God’s angels became devils.
All because of man.
And so when God eventually created man in his own image it was satan,
the ancient dragon or serpent who tempted Eve and Adam, lying to them.
And in this he became the source of sin and death
—as Jesus also told his apostles:
“…the devil…. was a murderer from the beginning and…
…he is a liar and the father of lies.”
And so as Jesus prepares to begin his public battle with satan,
he encounters him in the desert, face to face,
and begins his fight with a contest of wits
—the devil slashing with distortion and deceit,
and God the Son parrying gracefully with simple truth.
Now, the fact that the devil tries to tempt Jesus
means that he didn’t know exactly who Jesus was
–he didn’t recognize him as God the Son.
If he had known he was God, not even satan
would be foolish enough to try to tempt God.
The Fathers say that God hid Jesus’ divinity from the devil,
as it was hidden from the rest of the world,
so that while satan knew this was the greatest man he’d ever encountered,
and wondered if he might be the Messiah,
he did not exactly know who he was–yet.
And so he tries to tempt Jesus, just as he would any other man.
Except of course, with this particular man, this greatest of all men,
he lays aside the disguises he uses with us,
and shows himself face to face.
With us, his attack, his temptation, is definitely more subtle.
He can’t read our minds or souls, but he watches and listens to us,
so that knows us much better than we know ourselves
—after all, he still has the nature and power of an angel,
though a fallen angel.
He knows our history, our successes and failures.
He knows our moods, our likes and dislikes.
He knows everything we’ve ever learned and how we understand it.
He knows what irritates us, what excites us and what discourages us.
He preys on our weakness, and our confusions.
He manipulates our ignorance and even turns
our knowledge, virtue and goodness against us.
He’s clever, wily, cunning and subtle:
masking evil to make it seem good and twisting good to make it seem evil.
We see a more aggressive form of this same temptation as he attacks Jesus.
Of course, Jesus has no weaknesses,
but from his vast experience the devil tries to attack him
where most great men would be most vulnerable.
He begins with the basics: he sees that Jesus is hungry.
And so he tempts him to break his fast and perform a miracle,
making bread from stones
—not a sin, but in undermining this great man’s
amazing resolve and self-discipline
he will gain a great victory.
And when that fails, the devil assumes that like all great man
Jesus wants to be even greater,
so he tempts him by offering power over all the kingdoms of the world,
if only Jesus will worship him.
And when that fails, hoping to prey on the pride of great men who bow to no one,
the devil tempts Jesus to presume on God’s protection,
that God would send his angels so that
such great a man might not “dash your foot against a stone.”
He utterly fails with Jesus.
But he doesn’t fail with us.
And in some way he is connected to every sin we commit.
Now, don’t misunderstand: we sin by freely choosing to sin.
The devil can’t force us to sin,
but he is always there, goading us, lying to us, ever so imperceptibly.
Because he hates us.
So as Jesus warns us elsewhere in Scripture to:
“fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
And as St. Peter tells us:
“Be alert and of sober mind.
Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion
looking for someone to devour.”
We must fear the devil.
But we shouldn’t fear him as if he were an all-powerful evil deity,
because he is not that at all.
He is only a creature.
And while he can try to manipulate and corrupt our free will, he cannot override it.
So we fear him like we might fear a lion:
for example, we have no reason to be afraid of lions in a zoo,
After all, you’re standing at a distance protected by bars and moats,
and see him for what he is, but he can’t harm us.
But if we decide to walk through a game reserve in Africa,
or jump into the pit with the lion in a zoo, or unlock his cage,
then we have a lot to fear, and not abstractly.
So we stay away from the devil, and stay aware of his temptation.
And we follow the simple rule of keeping the commandments
and following the Church’s teaching—not being misled by the great liar.
And most of all, we unite ourselves to Christ, in His Word, in His Church,
and especially in His Sacraments.
And we remember that if we remain united to Jesus, in grace and in truth,
we’ll be just fine.
After all, look at what happens when the devil attacks Jesus in today’s gospel:
Of course at the end of today’s reading, it tells us that
“the devil …departed from him for a time.”
In other words, he came back to try again.
The Fathers of the Church say this happened in the Garden of Gethsemane,
when Jesus agonizes over his coming passion.
But there again the devil loses, as Jesus tells his father,
“not my will, but thine be done,”
and he goes to the Cross, where he crushes the serpent’s head.
Some folks nowadays say this is all a bunch of bunk:
the stuff of children’s nightmares, or Hollywood fantasy.
Some say the devil is just some sort of
archetype of the fears of our deepest psyche:
the figment of our imagination.
Some say the devil is just a scapegoat to explain away evil.
Denying the existence of the devil is bad enough,
but some admit the devil does exist, but he’s not such a bad guy.
We see this in those who actually worship the Devil, Satanists and witches.
But we also see it in entertainment:
it’s been around for decades, maybe centuries,
now we see it in a blasphemous television series that
tries to portray Lucifer
as a pretty good guy who’s just misunderstood.
But do not believe these lies.
The devil really does exist, and he really does hate Jesus—and us.
And he tempts us every day, hoping we will die in mortal sin
and spend eternity in the torments of hell, as he will.
Christ knew this.
The apostles believed this.
The early Church believed this.
And we believe this.
Because it’s true.
In Lent, we go out to the desert to prepare for Good Friday and Easter.
And there we encounter the Devil.
He will be angry that you’re trying to repent your sins, develop self-control,
and enter more deeply into the love of Christ’s Passion and Death.
But the thing is, we don’t go out alone
—we go out to the desert with Jesus, and Jesus is God,
and God always defeats the lowly menial creature who is the devil!
And there’s more.
Today we read from the Gospel account of St. Luke.
But in the Gospels of St. Matthew and Mark
there’s one last line that St. Luke leaves out:
“the devil left him, and behold,
angels came and were ministering to him.”
Where Jesus is, even in the desert, there are his angels.
And so during this Lent as we draw closer to Jesus,
his holy angels draw closer to us, comforting us, and protecting us.
And though the devil quotes Psalm 91 to try to tempt Jesus into testing God,
the Psalm is nevertheless true for those who do not test God
but simply trust God:
“He will command his angels …to guard you,
and with their hands they will support you….”
So that, as that Psalm goes on to say, but as the devil conveniently leaves out:
“the young lion and the serpent you will trample down.…”
As we now enter more deeply into this Holy Mass,
we remember that we are about to enter into the mystery of our faith,
the very Cross itself.
As Christ Crucified comes down to the altar
his holy angels come with him to adore him,
and to serve him as he should be served.
Let us join the angels in adoring and serving the Lord Jesus,
whom the devils once and forever refused to serve.
Let us allow Him to unite us to himself, crucified and risen, in Holy Communion.
And let us leave here today, going out with Jesus into the desert of Lent,
to face our sins and weaknesses,
the temptations of the world
and the temptations of the devil,
knowing that in clinging to Jesus Christ,
His victory in the desert and on the Cross
will be ours as well.