Humbling ourselves before Thee, we beseech Thee, Almighty God, favorably to regard the desires of our heart: and in our defense to stretch forth the right hand of Thy Majesty.
– From the Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent
Lent is a time of battle. On the First Sunday in Lent, we read of Christ’s battle with Satan after his forty days in the desert. This Sunday we read more about this battle between God and the devil, and our participation in it.
In Sunday’s Epistle, St. Paul warns the Ephesians that “no fornicator or unclean or covetous person (which is a serving of idols) hath inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” The parenthetical remark—that fornication and uncleanness (impurity) and covetousness is idolatry—is a fundamental insight found throughout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. When we commit grave sins like fornication, we are not just doing something against God’s law, we are actively serving idols. In a very real sense, we are breaking the first Commandment to have no other gods before God, for we are worshipping our desires rather than worshipping the Lord. As an early Church Father noted, “Idolatry usurps the honor of God and claims it for the creature. The holy name of God, which belongs solely to the Creator, is thereby applied to creatures” (Ambrosiaster, Epistle to the Ephesians 5.5.1).
St. Paul further commands that we “[b]e ye not therefore partakers with them. For you were heretofore darkness, but now light in the Lord. Walk then as children of the light.” In other words, instead of serving idols, all of whom ultimately point back to the Prince of Darkness, we must instead follow the One who is the “light of the world,” Jesus Christ. In the battle for our souls, we must consciously and daily decide to fight for the side of Christ instead of the devil.
Sunday’s Gospel also reflects on this crucial battle. Jesus casts out a devil, and some of his enemies accuse him of having the power of exorcism because he is himself in league with the devil! Jesus makes clear that the demons are united on one thing—our destruction—and so they will not cast each other out. Most importantly, however, is that no one around Jesus doubts that it is actual demons he is exorcising. It’s common today to discount stories of demonic possession or even demonic influence on people. But even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows that demonic forces constantly surround Our Lord, battling him for the dominion of souls.
Jesus, however, repeatedly demonstrates that they have no power over him, and that they must follow his commands. A St. Cyril of Alexandria writes, “[Jesus] has conquered the ruler of this world. Having, so to speak, hamstrung him and stripped him of the power he possessed, he has given him over for a prey to his followers…Since the Word of God who is above all, the Giver of all might and the Lord of powers attacked him, having become man, all his goods have been plundered and his spoil divided” (Commentary on Luke, Homily 81). Although Satan engages Christ in battle, in truth it is no contest, for Christ is the omnipotent Lord of the Universe.
But Christ’s omnipotence doesn’t mean we are engaged in a battle we can’t lose. Because of our sins and our free will, we can at any time fall under the dominion of the devil. Thus, during Lent, we must re-fortify ourselves in the struggle for our soul. We take on penances so that the devil can’t use our physical weakness as a door through which idolatry from fornication or impurity or covetousness can enter. We increase our prayer, recognizing that we have no power on our own to battle the devil, but that Christ alone can defeat him. And we engage in almsgiving, knowing that “almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin” (Tobit 12:9). As we continue through this Lent, let us enter into battle on the Lord’s side, and he will deliver us to victory.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications. He is the author of eight books, including Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It.