Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012, is the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalms 95:1-2, 6-9; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28
“The devil is a kindergartner compared to Jesus and Mary.” So said a friend of Tom’s in college — a friend who later became a renowned theologian.
It’s a great summing up of the devil, and today’s Gospel shows it to be true. Christ faces the devil and commands him with authority. The devil does not stand a chance against him.
There are two great errors in many people’s thinking about the devil. One is to believe that he doesn’t exist.
“It is in his interests to make himself ‘unknown,’” said Pope John Paul II. “Satan has the skill in the world to induce people to deny his existence in the name of rationalism and of every other system of thought which seeks all possible means to avoid recognizing his activity.”
The devil certainly does exist: He is mentioned 211 times in the New Testament, and his existence is affirmed repeatedly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was promulgated in 1995.
But there is a second error many make with regard to the devil: fearing him too much. St. Paul says that God will “not let you be tested beyond your strength.” St. Augustine said, “The devil can bark, but he cannot bite, unless a person lets himself be bitten.”
Think of the threat of the devil the way you think of taking a walk by the street. It is true that there are many cars driving by and that these could do great damage to you if you stepped in front of one. But it would be absurd to live in fear of roads. A few commonsense precautions will prevent you from getting hit. It’s the same with demonic activity. There is no need to live in fear of demons — but one ought to be aware of them and avoid them.
First, understand him. The truth is: The devil does not really care about human beings much at all. He is consumed by hatred of God, not us. But he is in a predicament because he has no power against God. So, instead, he takes delight in doing two things to us: marring the image of God he sees in us, and turning us against God — because he knows this makes God sad.
That is why possessed people in the Gospel act more like beasts than human beings; the devil delights in making them act like beasts instead of human beings. We should avoid those things that mar the dignity of human beings: The seven deadly sins all do that. In our day, the prevalence of pornography sweeps away human innocence and debases human dignity for many people. Violence, particularly the violence of abortion, does so, too.
We should be imitators of Christ in order to encourage the image of God in us. That means placing him as the highest priority in our life, as St. Paul says in the second reading today. It also means going beyond avoiding sin and adopting positive practices that open us to God’s grace.
Pope Paul VI said that the sacraments were the best defense against the devil, along with prayer — especially the Our Father, in which we pray, “Deliver us from the evil one.” That means staying in a state of grace or returning to it quickly through confession. A great practice is to go to Mass even more often than the Sunday obligation and to say the Rosary daily.
“Grace is the decisive defense” against the devil, wrote Pope Paul VI. “The Christian must be militant; he must be strong and vigilant.” But he need not be afraid.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas,
where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.