Christ Won, Satan Zero
Gospel Commentary for 1st Sunday of Lent
By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap
Our technological and industrialized world is filled with magicians, wizards, occultism, spiritualism, fortune tellers, spell trafficking, amulets, as well as very real Satanic sects. Chased away from the door, the devil has come in through the window. Chased away by the faith, he has returned by way of superstition.
The episode of Jesus' temptations in the desert that is read on the First Sunday of Lent helps us to have some clarity on this subject. First of all, do demons exist? That is, does the word "demon" truly indicate some personal being with intelligence and will, or is it simply a symbol, a manner of speaking that refers to the sum of the world's moral evil, the collective unconscious, collective alienation, etc.?
Many intellectuals do not believe in demons in the first sense. But it must be noted that many great writers, such as Goethe and Dostoyevsky, took Satan's existence very seriously. Baudelaire, who was certainly no angel, said that "the demon's greatest trick is to make people believe that he does not exist."
The principal proof of the existence of demons in the Gospels is not the numerous healings of possessed people, since ancient beliefs about the origins of certain maladies may have had some influence on the interpretation of these happenings. The proof is Jesus' temptation by the demon in the desert. The many saints who in their lives battled against the prince of darkness are also proof. They are not like "Don Quixote," tilting at windmills. On the contrary, they were very down-to-earth, psychologically healthy people.
If many people find belief in demons absurd, it is because they take their beliefs from books, they pass their lives in libraries and at desks; but demons are not interested in books, they are interested in persons, especially, and precisely, saints.
How could a person know anything about Satan if he has never encountered the reality of Satan, but only the idea of Satan in cultural, religious and ethnological traditions? They treat this question with great certainty and a feeling of superiority, doing away with it all as so much "medieval obscurantism."
But it is a false certainty. It is like someone who brags about not being afraid of lions and proves this by pointing out that he has seen many paintings and pictures of lions and was never frightened by them. On the other hand, it is entirely normal and consistent for those who do not believe in God to not believe in the devil. It would be quite tragic for someone who did not believe in God to believe in the devil!
Yet the most important thing that the Christian faith has to tell us is not that demons exist, but that Christ has defeated them. For Christians, Christ and demons are not two equal, but rather contrary principles, as certain dualistic religions believe to be the case with good and evil. Jesus is the only Lord; Satan is only a creature "gone bad." If power over men is given to Satan, it is because men have the possibility of freely choosing sides and also to keep them from being too proud (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7), believing themselves to be self-sufficient and without need of any redeemer. "Old Satan is crazy," goes an African-American 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 do us ill, unless we ourselves allow it. Satan, said an ancient Father of the Church, after Christ's coming, is like a dog chained up in the barnyard: He can bark and lunge as much as he wants, but if we don't go near him, he cannot harm us.
In the desert Jesus freed himself from Satan to free us! This is the joyous news with which we begin our Lenten journey toward Easter.