Not too long ago, a childhood friend from Virginia shared a story about his local school district.   The headline read  “After-school Satan Club to hold first meeting at a primary school.”  Some months ago the local “satanic temple” had wanted to form this new group and meet in this grammar school.  Primarily because there was an after-school group called the “Good News Club” which is a Christian club that had been meeting for some time.  When this first came to public attention, the amount of backlash and concern prompted the school to require the satanists to pay additional security fees, which the ACLU jumped on as a violation of the first amendment by treating one group differently than the other.  The school district withdrew that requirement clearing the way for them to proceed, which they now have.    This came about a week after the performer Sam Smith was at the Grammy Awards and did what he described as a “satanic” performance of a song titled “unholy.”  Both stories one on a local level and the other on an international level generated a great deal of attention and debate.  While it’s disturbing to see people doing such things, to be honest, I found myself kind of unemotional about it, which kind of surprised me.  In case you didn’t know I can get fired up about things.  And this one would seem to check all the boxes of stories that would do that for me.  When one of my priest friends had asked “what was the matter with me” – had I mellowed out or given up or what I said, “it’s not that.  It’s just that they are both so stupid.  These people are just being stupid.”  The pictures of the Grammy performance – the logo of the “after-school satan club” – looked like Yosemite Sam from the Bugs Bunny cartoon dressed up as the devil.  Wearing a red outfit with horns and a pitchfork.  It’s such a juvenile caricature where those advocating it seem more hell-bent (pun intended) on looking for attention than they are in actually embracing evil.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the the FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT – February 26, 2023, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

Don’t get me wrong – they’re being really stupid, really sinful in what they are doing.  Because they are mocking God, mocking Christian beliefs, and cooperating with evil in a way that I’m not sure whether they understand or care.   Just reading the organizers of the satanic club saying things like “it is not about satan but having an inclusive alternative for non-Christian children” tells me how incredibly misguided they are in using their children for some woke nonsense in which they are cooperating with some really messed up stuff.  And Sam Smith openly said in interviews before his performance something along the lines that he was doing this just to get Christians upset.   Really stupid and pathetic and as much as they say they aren’t doing this to promote satan and some say they don’t believe in him, they don’t realize the spiritual danger they are in and what they could be doing to others.  So in all sincerity, we need to pray for them.

But to me, these things, these events, they’re distractions.  They’re distractions from the reality that Satan, the devil is real.  And while he might revel in the division, the debate and the fights that ensue with these types of attention-grabbing things – what’s more of value to him is when we buy into the narrative.  That he’s a caricature like that.  That he’s going to be that obvious, that ridiculous in revealing himself.  Like a stupid two-horned pitchfork cartoon character.  And that our getting emotional about those things is all we need to do in this spiritual warfare against evil that every human being finds themselves in.  The devil would love for us to think it’s that blatant, that simple.

Our scriptures today are some of the richest examples of the true nature of this struggle of good versus evil and they reveal the truth about this battle.  In the first reading from Genesis, we get the abbreviated version of creation and the fall of mankind.  Things start beautifully simple – the Lord God formed man… blows his breath of life into him… provides everything necessary for fulfillment in the Garden… Adam and Eve had ONE JOB – to refrain from eating from the one tree.  And we know the rest of the story.  It’s interesting how whenever these opening chapters of Genesis come up, how quickly people can be distracted with questions like “why did God put the tree there in the first place” or “is the fruit a metaphor for something else?” or “why are we still affected by what they did?”  Others find themselves on team Adam or team Eve trying to determine who’s really at fault.  There’s some theological and philosophical value to those things so I’m not dismissing them.  But we can miss how quickly doing those things, we can allow our focus to be diverted.

At the root of the Genesis story is reflecting on what the fall is all about, and what continues to be at the root of all sinfulness is a lack of trust in God and His goodness.

Let’s just unpack the whole dialogue.  Look at the question the serpent asks Eve “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?”  Notice he doesn’t propose doubt in God’s existence, and that there’s already a lie a manipulation.  We know God hadn’t said “any tree”, he was specific – it was one particular tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Point #1 – The devil is a liar.   As Eve corrects him about what God had said, what God had told them, saying “You shall not eat from that one tree or touch it, lest you die” – the serpent lies again “You certainly will not die!”  Inviting Eve to doubt God and His goodness, helping her to forget at that moment all that God had done and instead to think that she was missing something, that God was holding her back and if she just grabbed hold of her freedom, grab hold of that fruit – she could be a god herself.  She eats and then does Adam…

Eve’s fall was even listening and entertaining the devil.  Adam’s fall was not doing what God had charged him to do… not being there in the first place as a protector for his wife, and allowing those lies and manipulations that had afflicted his wife to be considered.  Maybe he said, “she didn’t die – so maybe the serpent was right…. maybe God is holding us back.”  Which is why Adam is even more at fault.  And as the serpent slithers away, they don’t realize that physically they’re still alive but spiritually there’s been a death.  There’s been a death of the first covenant between God and man.  There’s been a death of intimacy and providence and fulfillment between God and man.  And brokenness has now entered the world, which will bring physical death as well.

What we find in recalling the fall in the Garden of Eden is our understanding of all temptation.  That it consists of the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride – Eve sees the tree as “good for food” (physical lust); the fruit was pleasing to the eyes (lust of the eyes) and if they ate it they would be gods (pride).  The irony was and is – that God wants humanity to be like Him.  He created us, He fashioned us, in His image.  He breathed His breath of life into us.  So that’s how twisted and manipulative the devil is, he’s the first one to “gaslight” and is perfect at it.  God desires that we are like Him, but the devil twists that and makes us believe that’s not the case.  And then the devil twists things another step.  Proposing the opposite to us – to not listen to God is the way to become like Him.

The serpent still slithers… lies and manipulates.  No matter the age or state of life we find ourselves in.  The devil is so uncreative that’s his same M.O. throughout all of human history and is so arrogant he attempts the same things on Jesus in today’s Gospel.  After Jesus enters into this intense period of communion with His Father, through prayer, fasting, and giving – the devil comes at Him trying with his old playbook – the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride.  Lust of the flesh – you’re hungry, you deserve to take care of yourself turn these stones into bread – Pride: throw yourself down from the temple just imagine the sensation you would be – everyone would believe in you then.  You’ll be popular, you’ll be famous  – then finally the lust of the eyes one small act of worship of satan, and all the kingdoms, all the riches are yours…  It’s crazy when we see the pattern, it’s somewhat obvious, it’s familiar.  He is not creative — this is the only routine he knows.  But then again, it’s a tried and true method that sadly still works.  We know that no matter what our age, or our state of life, there are temptations to give in to our earthly wants, there are desires to think we don’t have enough and need to possess more, and there’s pride that we know better than God, or even worse we tell ourselves He will just have to understand.  And we look around our world, we look around our communities, our workplaces, our families, we look within ourselves and can feel the weight of that sin, that evil, and feel lost in the wilderness in the desert.

But that’s why Jesus’ time in the desert is so important.  We can find Him there – or rather, here.  In this time of Lent, in our spiritual desert.  He shows us what to do.  That’s why we model this time of 40 days after His time of 40 days.  And He tells us how to defeat evil.  Fasting, Prayer, and Almsgiving.  Sometimes we can think that’s too old-fashioned or there has to be something else more effective.  It reminded me of how a few months ago, a priest who I’ve gotten to know and talked with a bunch of times over the last decade joined our students for one of our weekly dinner/discussion nights.  He’s an exorcist and was sharing some of his experiences.  After he highlighted that demonic possession is real and some stories of his experiences.  He also said they are really, really rare.  The bulk of things he encounters are not demonic possession but how people are upset with evil things they experience in their lives, and in their families… They want things to change, they want that to stop.  And sometimes they’ll go to him thinking he has some magic formula or secret blessing that will make things all better.    He used the example that “if I told them to go, get 4 dead cats, find an open field at midnight, and swirl them by their tails around your head a dozen times” they would follow up with “do you know where I can purchase these dead cats?”  But when he tells them to fast, pray, and give alms – to go to confession, go to Sunday Mass as the essential things they kind of shrug their shoulders in disappointment.  Yet thousands of years, sinners who became saints testify to the power of these ways to defeat the devil in the place that is of most concern to each of us.  Not out there somewhere on some TV show or protesting a group of very misdirected individuals from their satan club.   But in each of our hearts.  Our Jewish ancestors followed these spiritual practices and Jesus embraced them by clarifying their true purposes.  When we enter into fasting, we are doing so as a way of rejecting the lust of the flesh and looking for that personal conversion of our hearts.  When we give to others, we reject the lust of the eyes and in real effective ways, our conversion helps make the world a bit more loving by helping those most in need.  When we enter into prayer, we reject our pride as we humble ourselves before God – renewing our trust, opening the eyes and ears of our hearts to recognize His love and mercy where God enters into our messes, and reminds us of our true identity as his beloved sons and daughters.

As much as we can relate to Adam and Eve and how easily and quickly we can fall for those same lusts of the flesh and eyes and pride; we feel the effects of the death that came through those choices in ourselves when we do the same – what makes this season of Lent a privileged sacred time is we know the rest of the story.  The rest of the story was that God never gave up on us, He takes on the sin, and He offers salvation to all those who listen and follow Jesus.  Lent invites us to renew our decision to make that our story as well.