Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, Year A
At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.
The Sundays of Lent begin with a bang in the intense and powerful scene presented to us in the Gospel lesson for this first Sunday of the season, which always—in every year and in every rite—commemorates the temptation of Our Lord. We could almost call it “the Feast of the Temptation of Christ.”
As creepy as it may seem to us to be led into the barren desert in order to be tempted by the Evil One, what we actually see before us is a magnificent triumph. Our Lord had all the human emotions that we have, and at one point in his life he even shows fear (more on that in Holy Week!). But here, led by the devil, carried by him over a distance and high up in the air, and tempted most explicitly, he shows absolutely no fear of him in spite of his malice and power. The Fathers teach us that the Lord underwent temptation by the devil to provide us with an example of how to resist the devil. He means for us to do just as he did and vanquish the tempter.
So what are we to do? First off, Jesus fasted and prayed, and kept vigil, as the “forty nights” imply. St. John Vianney taught that when the devil sees someone praying a little more, doing a little fasting, and sleeping a little less, he becomes fearful of that person. How much must the demons fear Christ, who did all these things, and of the saints who persevered in them! They likewise must fear our taking up these spiritual weapons, and so they discourage us from them with a million excuses big and small.
Secondly, notice how Jesus uses sacred words to answer the devil’s attempts. We must contradict the evil insinuations of the devil with the words of the psalms and prayers of the Church, with the Most Holy Name of Jesus, the sweet name of Mary (the demons particularly fear that because though she is a mere human being she has humiliatingly more power than they do). We need this method very much. Our Lord had a very well-ordered emotional life, and his imagination and memory were all in perfect order; we on the other hand are driven by angry thoughts, lustful thoughts, grandiose thoughts, self-pitying thoughts. These are real temptations and we should contradict them with God’s name and his holy word spoken as an urgent prayer.
Nowadays there is a lot of talk among devout people about demonic possession, obsession, deliverance, and so on. A lot of this is good, but it will help us a great deal if we take the attitude of St. Teresa of Avila in her struggles and set aside fear of such things. It is sin we should fear, not the devil. She confidently asserts these words of encouragement in her autobiography (there is also an important message to priests here!):
Not a fig shall I care then for all the devils in hell: it is they who will fear me. I do not understand these fears. “Oh, the devil!, the devil!” we say, when we might be saying, “God! God!” and making the devil tremble. Of course we might, for we know he cannot move a finger unless the Lord permits it. Whatever are we thinking of? I am quite sure I am more afraid of people who are themselves terrified of the devil than I am of the devil himself. For he cannot harm me in the least, whereas they, especially if they are confessors, can upset people a great deal, and for several years they were such a trial to me that I marvel now that I was able to bear it. Blessed be the Lord, who has been of such real help to me!
The great Teresa, Doctor of the Church, even goes on to say in the same context that one deliberate venial sin does us more damage than all hell put together! This means that when it is a question of temptation, we should fear ourselves more than anyone else. To be sure, God is the judge and he looks mercifully on our weaknesses and forgives us lovingly and most willingly, but our sin is our own. We cannot blame it on the devil, saying with the old comedian of my youth, “The devil made me do it!”
So let us set aside fear as Christ did, and use the means that he used to vanquish the devil.
Our Lady and Joseph, her holy spouse, whose feast we will celebrate this month, will watch over us as they did over their young son as in youth and young manhood he undertook the works of fasting and prayer and vigils for the salvation of the world. It is not for nothing that Mary’s spouse is thus invoked: “Terror of demons, Pray for us!”