ROME, FEB. 11, 2005 (Zenit.org).- In his commentary on the Gospel of the first Sunday of Lent, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the Pontifical Household, alerts the faithful about the devil’s action and reminds them that Christ has conquered him.
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“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.’ He said in reply, ‘It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, ‘Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, ‘All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.’ At this, Jesus said to him, ‘Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.”
Today the devil, Satanism, and other related phenomena, are gaining momentum and this is very disturbing. Our technological and industrialized world is overrun with wizards, witches, occultism, spiritualism, voluble fortune tellers, vendors of spells and amulets, as well as authentic Satanic sects. Thrown out the door, the devil has come back in through the window. That is, expelled from faith he has returned with superstition.
The episode of Jesus’ temptations in the desert helps to clarify matters. First of all, does the devil exist? Does the word devil really indicate a personal reality, gifted with intelligence and will or is he only a symbol, a way of speaking to indicate the sum of the moral evil of the world, the collective unconscious, collective alienations, etc.? Among intellectuals, many do not believe in the devil understood in the first sense.
But we must note that great writers and thinkers, such as Goethe and Dostoyevsky, took the existence of Satan very seriously. Charles Baudelaire, who was certainly not of the race of saints, said that “the devil’s greatest cunning is to make people believe he doesn’t exist.” The principal proof in the Gospels of the devil’s existence is not in the numerous episodes of exorcism of the possessed, because the interpretation of these events might have been influenced by beliefs on the origin of these illnesses. The real proof is in the saints!
And Jesus, who was tempted in the desert by the devil, is the obvious confirmation of it. Proofs also are the many saints who fought in life with the prince of darkness. They are not “Don Quixotes” who fought against windmills. On the contrary, they are very concrete men of very sound psychology.
If many find it absurd to believe in the devil it is because they base themselves on books, spend their lives in libraries or at a desk, while the devil is not interested in books, but in people, especially saints. What can someone know about Satan who has never had anything to do with the reality of Satan, but only with the idea of him, namely, with cultural, religious, ethnological traditions about Satan? They usually address the topic with great certainty and superiority, dispatching it all as “Medieval obscurantism.”
But it is a false certainty. As someone who boasts of not being at all afraid of a lion, adducing as proof that he has seen many paintings and photographs of lions which have never terrified him.
Moreover, it is all together normal and consistent that someone who doesn’t believe in God doesn’t believe in the devil either. It would even be tragic if someone who doesn’t believe in God believes in the devil! The most important thing that the Christian faith has to tell us is not, however, that the devil exists, but that Christ has conquered the devil. Christ and the devil are not for Christians two equal and opposing princes. Jesus is the only Lord. Satan is only a “ruined” creature. If he is granted power over men it is so that men will have the possibility to make a free choice, and also so that they will not “become proud” believing that they are self-sufficient and not in need of a redeemer.
“Old Satan is crazy,” says a Negro spiritual. “He shot me to destroy my soul, but missed and destroyed my sin instead.” With Christ, we have nothing to fear. Nothing and no one can harm us, if we ourselves don’t will it. Satan, said an early Father of the Church, after the coming of Christ, is like a dog tied to a pole: he can bark and hurl himself as much as he likes, but if we don’t get close to him, he cannot bite. Jesus in the desert freed himself from Satan to free us from Satan! This is the joyful news with which we begin our Lenten journey.
[Original in Italian published in “Famiglia Cristiana.” Translation by ZENIT]