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Sunday 1 of Lent, Year A

“Be off, Satan!” Adam and Eve were tempted to do wrong and did it. Christ was tempted to do wrong, but did right. We can therefore be tempted either to do wrong or to do right, although we rarely say, “I’m tempted to do the right thing.” Of course, you can only be tempted if right and wrong exist. No right or wrong, no temptation. So then, the question is, “What is right? What is wrong? Who decides?” For all three, Adam and Eve and Christ, the will of God which determines right and wrong. The devil knows that all three depend on God’s word. Hence, before his temptations are to do this or that wrong thing, they are intended to go deeper, to question God’s authority and to detach all three from that authority. The devil, of course, does not say as much. Instead he seeks to make disobedience attractive, he seeks to promote the thrill of being independent from God, of being our own authority, of establishing our own right and wrong or indeed of deciding there is no such thing as right and wrong. Yet just as man cannot survive naturally in space, but depends on having the earth beneath his feet and air in his lungs, so he cannot survive spiritually or morally if he does not depend on God, does not breathe the air of God’s life-giving will.

We only exist because we depend on God. It is the deepest truth of our being. Satan rejected his own dependence on God. He told himself the lie that he was as great if not greater than God, and thus became a living lie, the father of lies, the perpetrator of deceit. He tries to ply his trade of lies and deceit by subtly hinting and suggesting to us that we can also be independent of God. But you can no more deny you depend on God than you can deny one plus one equals two. It is absurd to pretend that you can breathe fine when you cut off the source of your oxygen. In fact, it is deadly. Satan’s game is not, as it often appears, that we have a good time. If he could deny us the good time, he would. His game is to hoodwink us into thinking we can have a good time when in fact he wants to destroy us. Destruction is the only option without God. Satan is jealous of God, jealous of us, jealous of God’s love for us. He is angry that his own pride did not pay off and is hell bent on making sure that, if he’s not happy, no-one else will be. His seductions are fake attempts to stick the knife in and cut us away from God. Lucifer, the bearer of light? Yes, but a light which plunges us into darkness.

When tempted to do wrong, the last thing you should do is discuss things with the devil or with the wounded side of your own self. The minute you start to dialogue, you will lose, because you will be convinced by the easy and fascinating side of evil. Eve came to grief mainly because the devil’s power of persuasion is second to none. What she should have said was what Christ said: “Be off, Satan!” That’s a healthy and holy indignation. It’s also a smart move. The minute you stand up to Satan, he will slink away. Standing up to Satan and to the darker side of your own self can only be done if you know and accept the authority of God and trust it no matter what. Remember St. Paul who complained to God about his own trials. The Lord told him, “My grace is enough for you.” God will not let us be tempted beyond our strength and will always give us a way out when temptation comes. But do we want it?

This is where we need the grace of fortitude. Any parent will know that, at times, a child must simply and firmly be faced with a limit, with a “no.” It is a no at the service of a greater yes, the true good of the child. It is the same in the hour of temptation. The parent in us, the adult in us, must simply say no, without getting into discussions or listening to complaints or rationalizations of our infantile self (“just this once”, “just a little bit”, “but I’ve had a hard day”, etc.). It is important to know the greater yes we are preserving and strengthening when we say such “no’s.” Had Eve said no to Satan, I wonder what bliss we would all now be living in. Had Christ said yes to Satan, I wonder what utter chaos we would be in, or if creation itself would even have survived such a catastrophe. I think we can all look at our own lives and ask the same questions. What if I had not given into that temptation all those years ago, might I have saved myself a life of suffering or disappointment? What if I had not done the right thing in that situation, what consequences would it have had? We can only speculate, of course, but the story of our lives tells us that there are things we have done wrong which have caused problems, just as there are thinks we have done right which have brought joy and happiness. That wisdom of experience helps to say “no” when tempted.

If we do not experience temptation in our lives, we will not grow spiritually. It was the Holy Spirit who drove Jesus into the desert to be tempted. In other words, the Lord needs us to undergo the trials of temptation so that we discover the truth of where our hearts lie. Temptation matures us if we overcome it in the power and wisdom of Christ. Temptation purifies us of two-mindedness because it forces us to choose the mind of Christ over the mind of the devil. Temptation does not just consist of being seduced into doing this or that act, or into say this or that word. Temptation also consists far more seriously of the invitation to such things as: succumbing to despair in the face of suffering, or giving up on prayer because I judge it a waste of time, or self-satisfaction in my religious practice, or apathy and lethargy in making the effort to love, to trust in God, to reach out to others. The devil is happier when he wins the temptation by inducing us into habits of mind or heart, rather than individual acts. If we are habitually arrogant or judgmental; if we simply dismiss as unrealistic and outmoded the teaching of scripture and the Church on human life, marriage and sexuality; if we are perpetually cynical and sarcastic or have taken the decision simply never to forgive someone. All of these kinds of things represent remarkable victories of evil and ought to be a source of great spiritual concern for us. They ought to spur us into action.

At the same time, we should never lose hope. To do that would mean that evil had won. Rather, even when we fall, we can rise again with Christ’s love. Even if we are wounded, we will not die if we keep returning to Christ for healing. Even if we muddy the waters of right and wrong, with Christ’s truth and wisdom we can gradually find our way to clearer waters. The whole thing about temptation is that it is an ongoing battle and we can be confident of victory because Christ has won the war. Every day you are fighting that battle. By being here you are checking in for supplies and new strength to keep going. By your fidelity to Christ you are injecting the world around you with Christ’s strength and light. Together with other people of goodwill you are keeping the shadows of evil at bay and refusing to let them take over. The spiritual struggle we go through individually and collectively and the fruits it bears in works of kindness, charity and compassion proves that evil does not have the last word. It most certainly does not.

It can be hard, at times, I know, to believe and trust in God’s will in the midst of the fight. And while we cannot deny that there is evil in the world, and in our own lives, we can yet proclaim that there is also the hope of Christ’s mercy and the victory of his love. Of the two, there is no question that Christ will prevail. The happy day will come when humanity will, as one man, be able to cry out with Christ, “Be off, Satan!” and he will depart never more to return.