05 March 2006

With the Devil in the Desert

1st Sunday of Lent 2006: Gen 9.8-15; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.12-15
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

Hear it!
I find him sitting with his back against a rock, staring at the heat waving above the dry-cracked river bed. He smells of hot cedar smoke, burnt bees’ wax, and drying sweat. When my shadow touches his bare feet, he moves them away and turns as if to look at me, then stops and stares again at the blistering sand. I wave my hand to greet him, my shadow again touching his feet and legs. This time he doesn’t move. It’s always the same with him. He knows I’m here. Right here with him. But he stubbornly ignores me or moves away at my dark touch. I take a deep breath, gather my silk robes around my legs to sit, and as I fall into place in front of him, he sighs and begins to pray aloud. Scratchy, mumbling nonsense. Groveling little bits of spontaneous poetry and half-remembered words and phrases stolen from thin, crumbling scrolls. I just listen and wait. Most days we sit together in silence like this, waiting on one another.

When the sun touches the tallest mountain, he stops muttering. The dry burn of the desert wind eases a bit. There’s a promise of wet air, of moisture from somewhere out of the north. I clear my throat. I see a small smile on his lips. Just as I open my mouth to argue again, wild beasts begin to gather near us. This happens every night about this time. And I am surprised again, always surprised, by the fierce brilliance of the crown of angels that seems to float miles away behind his head. Tensed to fight, they just hold there radiating His glory—a sky crowded with angelic mirrors flashing His beauty. How very servile of them to pose so. How very grand it all is. A perfect waste of power.

I catch him watching me watch his ministers. You see, he knows that I know that he won’t call them. He could. No doubt. But he won’t. It’s a matter to pride with him. That’s my secret weapon: his pride. He’s the favored Son. I’m the fallen Daystar. He’s the Anointed One. I’m the Marked One. He is Righteousness and I am Rebellion. And I’m here, again, to show him the error of his Way, to offer him something far better than a life wasted on dumb humility, unrequited love, and pointless sacrifice. I am here to tempt him away from his self-destructive path, away from the terrible, bloody death that those dirty little apes he loves so much will give him. I will show him riches, power, and his own pride. I will tempt him to resist me on his own, without those shiny angels coming to his rescue!

I gather myself for the show, for the theatre of the absurd that will surely wake him up to his desperate folly. But before I can collect myself fully, he starts to chuckle. Just a small laugh at first. Then he burst out with a deep guffaw! A belly laugh from the Son of God. I just stare at him. Surely the heat has driven him mad. He stops. And he opens his eyes, looking at me, through me, right to the center of the goodness that is my very existence. I fumble for an excuse, some reason to protest the invasion of my privacy, but I can only stare back at the fullness of beauty, goodness, and truth that He Is.

Without moving he says, “Perdition, you are here again to lie to me, to put between me and our Father a temptation. Do it then.” I swallow hard and plead, “My Lord, can’t you see that the course laid out for you is disastrous? Can’t you see the possibilities for us, the potential of our rule if you would turn to me for help? Can’t you see your ignominious end? The scandal of it!” He chuckles again, “You are worried about scandal? Try another one, Deceiver. Put yourself behind me so that I may go forward. You are dust and wind.” He gently waves his hand toward the cooling desert. I grow angry at his dismissal, “Wow! You really are stupidity itself, aren’t you. Wasted power, wasted opportunities.”

I sputter for a while longer, hoping that my indignity at his rudeness will move him to talk to me again. Nothing. I conjure images of wealth—jewels, fine horses, palaces. Nothing. I conjure images of power—a throne for the worlds, slaves, armies. Nothing. Finally, I conjure images of personal dignity—his freedom from the trails ahead, the esteem of his rabbinical colleagues, the love of the crowds cheering him. Nothing. Again, nothing.

I gird my silk robes, bracing myself for one final assault on this mulish Nazarene. I shout at him: “You’re proud! It’s pride that makes you think you are better than my gifts, too good to pick up what I give you. Pride!” He shifts his feet under him, rises to stand before me. He looks over my head as if reading a text behind me, “You are nothing, brother. Shapes, shadows, quick glimpses, and shallow sighs.” My indignity is unmatchable! “I am Lucifer, Morning Light! I am First Chosen of the Angels! I know who I am!” His eyes move to focus on mine. He squints against a finally setting sun, “I will teach you who you are. Fallen creature. Sinner. Liar. Killer of Hope. Tempter. I know your true names: Perdition. Chaos. Betrayal. You cannot win with me because I am driven here by the Spirit of our Father to fast and pray and to prepare myself for what I am about.”

Panicked, I reach for what I have, anything at all, and say, “They won’t love you for your sacrifice, you know? They will not come to you after you are betrayed and convicted, and sent into the dead ground. They will deny you. They will run and hide and waste time pointing fingers and accusing one another. I will make sure that they forget you.” If anything he looked calmer, “Yes, I suppose you will. But they like me will have their forty days in the desert, their time and place apart to burn away the excess, to trim the burdensome and ridiculous, to pray and serve, and to remember that they are dust—dust given life by our Father’s breath and made holy in His love for them.”

What arrogance! The man is insane. I have to ask, “You came into this dead waste to pray and serve and to remember that you are dust? You? The favored Son? The Messiah? You fled to this place? Why? Why would you do such a stupid thing?” Again, he smiles slightly at me, at my vehemence, and says, “I will teach you again, Satan. I am in this desert for forty days to remember the journey of Moses and his people out of slavery. I am in this desert for forty days to teach those to come how to live with our Father. I am here to survive with Him alone, to live stripped of pretense, theatre, guile, and luxurious want. I am here so that those whom you will tempt tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will know that they need only to call upon the Father’s mercy, to repent, believe the gospel, and then know that they are free of you forever.” His eyes blaze for a moment, then calm again.

I give up! My time with him is up anyway. My time with him is wasted breath. You, you however, well, you’re just beginning, aren’t you? What, day five or six, now, of the forty? Come, let me show you to my favorite rock and the riches I can offer you. Let me show you my toys, my little inventions, and help you choose a Way more to my…I mean…your liking.

So tell me, little ones, what tempts you?


  1. Anonymous1:55 PM

    I love it! A splendid homily. Evocative to the point of being magical! Here's mine. A lot less creative, but I thought I might share it with you anyway:

    Genesis 9:8-15
    Psalm 24: 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
    1 Peter 3: 18-22
    Mark 1:12-15

    March 5, 2006
    Monastery of the Glorious Cross, O.S.B.
    Branford, Connecticut

    Nestling Under the Shadow of God

    Today the sacred liturgy transports us into the desert: an arid wilderness, uncharted, inhospitable, and haunted by evil spirits. This being said, the tone of today's Mass is reassuring and full of confidence. Psalm 90 (Qui habitat) runs through the Mass of the First Sunday of Lent from beginning to end. “He will give thee the shelter of his arms; under his wings thou shalt find refuge, his faithful care thy watch and ward” (Ps 90:4-5). The desert is, paradoxically, the very place where, cut off from all else, we experience the closeness of God. The opening verses of Psalm 90 have, in the translation of Ronald Knox, a note of intimacy that may escape us in more familiar translations:

    Content if thou be to live with the Most High for thy defence,
    under his Almighty shadow nestling still,
    him thy refuge, him thy stronghold thou mayst call,
    thy own God, in whom is all thy trust” (Ps 90:1-2).

    Christ Praying in Us

    This is the psalm that today's liturgy places in the mouth of Christ. This is the prayer of Christ that exorcises the desert, that cleanses it, and that sanctifies it. The liturgy places the same psalm in our mouths. We repeat it; we pray it; we sing it; we allow it to inhabit us. Held in the heart, it becomes Christ's own prayer for us, and with us, and in us, to the Father. Psalm 90 functions today as a sacrament of the prayer of Christ. It is that by which we are given a holy communion with the prayer of the tempted and lonely Christ, the means by which the prayer of Christ himself can inhabit all our moments of temptation, loneliness, and fear.

    The Psalm of the Day

    Psalm 90 occurs no less than five times in today's Mass, not counting the oblique references to it in the Gospel itself. It is clearly the psalm of the day. The Church gives us Psalm 90 as we prepare to go into the desert. It is a mother's provision for the son going off to war. “Take this,” she says, “keep it close to your heart, and when, all around you, the battle rages repeat it, knowing that I am praying it with you.” “Though a thousand fall at thy side, ten thousand at thy right side, it shall never come next or near thee” (Ps 90:7).
    Psalm 90 is one of the few psalms that we find used universally in both East and West on a daily basis. When we discover that the practice of the Church is to pray a given psalm every day, it must be because that psalm has, in the light of experience, been found indispensable.

    The Noonday Devil

    In the East Psalm 90 was assigned every day to the Sixth Hour, that is noon. This particular choice was inspired by verse 6: “Thou shalt not be afraid of . . . the arrow that flieth in the day . . . or of the noonday devil” (Ps 90:5-6). The fathers and mothers of the desert identified the noonday devil as the evil force that attacks those who are “burned out” and weary. The noonday devil insinuates thoughts of dejection and of disgust for prayer and the things of God. The noonday devil whispers dark thoughts and plants them in the mind: thoughts of discouragement, despondency, and despair. “Give it up. What's the use? Why go on? It all means nothing. You've been taken in, deceived. There is nothing on the other side. There is no hope for you. Your life is a failure. You are beyond redemption. You are not salvageable.” These are the classic temptations of desert-dwellers from Saint Anthony of Egypt to Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, tempted to suicide during her final illness.

    The Terrors of the Night

    In the West, thanks to the Rule of Saint Benedict, Psalm 90 was assigned to Compline, the last prayer before going to bed. While Eastern Christians focused on the “noonday devil,” Western Christians were more struck by the references to darkness. “Nothing shalt thou have to fear from nightly terrors . . . from pestilence that walks to and fro in the darkness” (Ps 90:5-6). The terror of the night: what child has not known the terror of mysterious evil beings lurking in dark closets, hanging behind the curtains and hiding under the bed? What city streets are not haunted at night by demons of violence, addiction, loneliness, and lust? How many people lie awake at night tormented by anxieties, ruminating old hurts, and fearing new ones? The ancient Compline hymn resonates with the psalm: “From all ill dreams defend our eyes, / From nightly fears and fantasies; / Tread under foot our ghostly foe, / That no pollution we may know” (Te lucis ante terminum).

    Beasts and Angels

    Besides the noonday devil and the terrors of the night, there are in Psalm 90 two other images that we find also in today's Gospel: wild beasts and angels. The psalm says, “He has given charge to his angels concerning thee, to watch over thee wheresoever thou goest; they will hold thee up with their hands lest thou shouldst chance to trip on a stone” (Ps 90:11-12). Angels!
    Now, the beasts: “Thou shalt tread safely on asp and adder, crush lion and serpent under thy feet” (Ps 90:13). In a single sentence Saint Mark evokes the mysterious reality of the Son of God set around with wild beasts and angels. Jesus, he says, “lodged with the beasts, and there the angels ministered to him” (Mk 1:12). Saint Mark's wild beasts are those named in Psalm 90: the asp and the adder, the lion and the serpent.

    Malign Influences

    The wild beasts of the gospel and of the psalm are figures of the fallen angels, the demons who haunt our desert wildernesses. Cassian explains that “one is called a lion because of his wild fury and raging ferocity, another an adder because of the mortal poison that kills before it is noticed” (Conferences 7.32.5). Saint Peter speaks of the devil as a lion in a text that the traditional liturgy of Compline associated with Psalm 90: “Be sober and watch well; the devil who is your enemy, goes about roaring like a lion, to find his prey, but you, grounded in the faith, must face him boldly” (1 P 5:8). While the lion seeks to intimidate by roaring, the viper is silent and deadly, striking quickly and without warning. The attacks of evil spirits on us are real. Saint Paul says: “It is not against flesh and blood that we enter the lists; we have to do with princedoms and powers, with those who have mastery over the world in these dark days, with malign influences in an order higher than ours” (Eph 6:12).

    Ministering Angels

    In the fray of spiritual comba and the wastelands of sin, the angels too are present. They watch over us, ready at every moment to rescue us from the treacherous lures of evil. The angels sent by the Father to minister to Christ in his temptations are sent to minister to us in ours. I am struck by this ministry of angels to the tempted and suffering Christ. Saint Mark points to their presence in the desert; for Saint Luke, it is in the garden of Gethsemane, that “an angel from heaven appears to Jesus, strengthening him” (Lk 22:43).
    It is good, at the beginning of this Lenten season - the Prayer Over the Oblations will call it “the beginning of this sacrament of Lent” - to recall that while we are tempted and attacked by the noonday devil and the terrors of the night, the angels speak to us of the sheltering hand of God, the hand by which we are protected, nourished, and even caressed.

    Promises of Glory

    The last part of Psalm 90 we hear the promises of the Father to the suffering and tempted Christ. They are just as truly his promises to each of us in our hour of testing. “He trust in me, mine it is to deliver him; he acknowledges my name, from me he shall have protection; when he calls upon me, I will listen, in affliction I am at his side, to bring him to safety and honour. Length of days he shall have to content him, and find in me deliverance” (Ps 90:16).
    Driven by the Spirit into the Lenten desert with Christ, we are full of confidence. Already the brightness of the Resurrection shines on the horizon, filling us with hope. The Preface of the Temptation of the Lord that you will hear sung in just a few moments contains a phrase that, I think, illuminates every struggle with sin, every test and every experience of desert, with the hope of glory: “ . . . that, celebrating the paschal mystery with worthy minds, we may, at length, pass over to the Pasch that has no end.” We will celebrate the paschal mystery with worthy minds if, beginning today, we fill them with the prayer of Christ, a prayer given us in the psalm, and made perfect in us by our sharing in the Holy Sacrifice.

  2. I posted my comments on the 2009 entry linking to this one. It looks like others are starting to do the same: The Devil preaches on Lent