Yesterday’s readings about Christ’s temptation in the desert – the inspiration and model for the Lenten season – remind us of the existence of the devil. Although we moderns tend to downplay or even deny his existence, the Bible has no such compunction. He is literally there from Genesis to Revelation, and he and his demonic host are often confronted by Jesus in the Gospels. By my count, at least seven of the 26 healings found in the Gospels are actually demonstrations of Christ’s power over a demon or demons. The confrontations include:
- The Man with an Unclean Spirit (Mark 1:21ff, Luke 4:31ff)
- Demoniacs at Gadara (Matthew 8:28ff, Mark 5:1ff, Luke 8:26ff)
- Possessed Mute (Matthew 9:32ff)
- Blind, Dumb, Possessed Man (Matthew 12:22ff, Luke 11:14ff)
- Daughter of Canaanite (Matthew 15:21ff)
- Epileptic Boy (Matthew 17:14ff, Mark 9:14ff, Luke 9:37ff)
- Woman Bent Double (Luke 13:10ff)
John does not have any direct encounters between Christ and demonic forces, but it is in his Gospel that Christ declares at the Last Supper, “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). The entire work of Christ in salvation history is seen as the overthrow of Satan’s kingdom and the establishment of the reign of Christ.
This focus on the devil was brought to my mind by reading St. Athanasius’ “Life of St. Antony.” This short biography has two main characters: Antony and the devil. It includes many stories of Antony physically battling demons, which might either be metaphors for Antony’s spiritual struggle against demonic forces, or it might well be literally true: we normal folk succumb easily to Satan’s temptations and he might take a more direct approach against a holy man like St. Antony. Either way, it is clear that the path to holiness must include overcoming the powers of Hell. Fortunately, Christ promised that exact power to his Church (Matthew 16:18).
Placing the temptation in the desert reading on the first Sunday in Lent reminds us who our battle is against – not just self, but also the devil.