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It would be like telling the story of World War II and leaving out Hitler. That’s what telling the story told in the gospels would be like without taking account of the devil. He and his evil companions are a sinister presence throughout.
The gospel narrative concerning what might be called the first Lent is testimony to that. I mean the 40 days Christ spent in the desert before launching into his public career. At the end of it, Satan appears and proposes three famous temptations, recorded in the narratives of Matthew and Luke:
Turn these stones into loaves of bread.
Throw yourself down from the peak of the temple and be rescued by angels.
“Fall down and worship me” — Satan, that is — and in doing that become ruler of all the kingdoms of the world.
A mysterious episode, to say the least. What’s it all about? Many things, no doubt, but one thing stands out — vocation. And here it has much to tell us about ourselves.
Jesus goes into the desert in order to engage in vocational discernment. Yes, he knows he is called to be messiah, redeemer. But exactly how?
Satan offers not just one possibility but three: Be a messiah who makes people feel good by satisfying their physical wants (stones into bread); or be a messiah who awes people into submission by astonishing feats (hurtle down from the heights of the temple and let angels bear you up) or be a messiah in perhaps the most obvious way of all — pay homage to the devil as the price of worldly power and glory: be a kind of vicar of Satan on earth.
Jesus’ answer to all three proposals is an unequivocal no. These are not ways of being messiah as his Father intends. According to the divine plan, the redeemer will redeem by sacrificing his life. And that is the sort of messiah Jesus chooses to be because it conforms to the will of the Father.
“All very interesting,” someone might say, “but what does this story of demonic testing have to do with us and with modern-day Lent as we experience it?”
That too has many answers. One in particular strikes me. It’s along the following lines.
The story of the temptation is not simply about the discerning of a vocation but about discerning a vocation correctly and living it in the manner God intends. This is a matter of importance for everyone, but it’s especially important for people who think of themselves, not without reason, as already being more or less pleasing in the eyes of God.
The big danger for people like that is that even though they do indeed see and accept God’s call, they may grow complacent over time — slightly off-track, a bit out of focus, as it were. Nothing dramatic, mind you, yet not entirely right.
Here is where self-inspection, repentance and a renewed act of conversion become matters of urgency in the interior life. And here is what Lent especially invites good people to do.
I’m reminded of something St. Ignatius Loyola said: “It is a mark of the Evil Spirit to take on the appearance of an angel of light. He begins by whispering thoughts that are suited to a devout soul and ends by suggesting his own.”
For good people in particular, Lent is a time to take a closer look at whether some Satanic solicitation — call it the temptation to be too pleased with themselves — has begun whispering to them.
Russell Shaw is the author or coauthor of 21 books and numerous articles, columns and reviews. He is a member of the faculty of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and former secretary for Public Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.