I am entering the Church this Easter with a motley crew of candidates in RCIA. Hilda, an elderly black woman, hails from the Bronx and used to be Episcopalian. Stephanie, a nurse who wears seven-inch heels, is so nervous about being a minute late to Mass. She thinks they won’t let her in until she knows how to pray the Rosary. Gentle and her daughter Grace wear veils and soak up the instruction eagerly. Caroline, a sweet Southern Baptist, has been baptized twenty times, each time she renewed her faith and recommitted her life to Christ. Our fearless leader Matt has six boys, Polycarp and Athanasius among them.
On Sundays, the RCIA class prays and meditates on the Gospel through Lectio Divina. The First Sunday in Lent especially suits candidates and catechumens (now “the Elect,” having been approved by the Bishop). Jesus, filled with the Spirit, has just been baptized. He has undergone forty days of fasting. Rather than wearying him, this abstinence has strengthened him. He takes up self-denial as a weapon against the Prince of Darkness.
Satan whispers to God’s children to give in to their desires, to let gluttony, drunkenness, and lust rule them. The tempter would have us believe that the pleasure is worth the price of growing farther from God. He assures us, “You will not surely die.” The devil wants us to believe that God is withholding goods from us. Satan wants us to think that God does not want the best for us.
Some of the church fathers wrote that Satan did not know Jesus was the Son of God until he withstood the temptations. They interpreted, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread” as a real test of Jesus’ divinity. He proves himself to be the Son of God, and Satan revisits him in Gethsemane to tempt him to cowardice and fear.
Christ’s victory gives us the courage to withstand the tempter. Through this Gospel, God tells us, “My strength is made perfect in weakness. I have baptized you—I will also strengthen you. Resist the Prince of the Powers of the Air, and he will flee from you.” Our hearts respond with a hunger for holiness, a thirst for souls, and a fear of God, the one who is stronger than Satan.
We all stand in the place of Job. Et ne inducas nos in temptationem sed libera nos a malo. God does not tempt us, but he allows Satan to. Just as Jesus uses Scripture to withstand the temptations of Satan, so we avail ourselves of the Word, the Eucharist, the living Bread to strengthen our weak souls.
We must remember that Satan is on a leash. We ought not fear him. He has been defeated, and he will finally be thrown into the lake of fire. The limits of evil are set by God himself. When Satan quotes Psalm 91, “For He shall give His angels charge over you, / To keep you in all your ways. In their hands they shall bear you up, / Lest you dash your foot against a stone,” he forgets the following verse: “You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra, / The young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot.” Jesus will enact the promise hidden in the curse put on the serpent: “And I will put enmity / Between you and the woman, / And between your seed and her Seed; / He shall bruise your head, / And you shall bruise His heel.” Mary is the Seed of Eve, and her Son crushes the Serpent’s head. He tramples upon the world, the flesh, and the devil. He divests Satan, sin, and death of their power.
Christ did not have to be baptized, but he consented to receive the sacrament from John in the Jordan for our sake. He did not have to suffer temptation, but he allowed it for us. If our mind is transformed to the likeness of Christ, we will combat the evil suggestions of Satan and his demons. We must be like the burning bush, symbol of Mary, afire for God but not consumed. The Catechism teaches that “as fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected for his power.” Or in the words of St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
We should knock down every impediment between us and the sacraments. I once heard a priest pray for the congregation and himself “that we would rather die than commit a venial sin.” Oh, for the gift of a tender conscience. Oh, to possess true sorrow for sin. Oh, for the gift of a humble and contrite heart. We have only to ask if we wish to receive.
When Jesus into yonder Jordan dove,
He left his coat of glory there to wear,
He called out to the souls that sank and strove,
By their own strength and light themselves to bear.
The gladsome tidings that the infant brings
Exceed the sorrow of his mother dear
The blood spilt on the hill with triumph sings
Above the thwarted foe that crept so near.
As Moses in the basket by the bank
Gave to the unwed girl her motherhood,
So axe heads that would otherwise have sank
Did float when they were rescued by the rood.
So when the water mixes with the blood,
It serves to do mankind their greatest good.