“When a strong man fully armed guards his palace, his possessions are safe. But when one stronger than he attacks and overcomes him, he takes away the armor on which he relied and distributes the spoils.” — Luke 11:21-22
Recently, I heard an NFL coach being interviewed on the radio. The interviewer asked the coach about the opponents his team would be facing that week. The coach demurred, saying (to paraphrase), “We don’t worry about what opponent we’re playing. We just try to get ready to play at a high level.”
Having once been a football player and a coach, I’m pretty sure that coach cannot have meant what he said quite literally. No serious football program ignores its upcoming opponents. In fact, teams typically study their opponents with great diligence, hoping to expose weaknesses and maximize their own strengths in each game.
This competitive wisdom also holds true in the spiritual life. We need to know who our opponent is and what his “game plan” entails. This is especially true during a time of crisis in the Church such as we’re facing now. This crisis is once again on prominent public display this weekend, with the publication of the first installment of a new series of reports by the Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer focusing on alleged cover-ups and mismanagement of sexual abuse cases by bishops around the country.
A crisis can bring out the best in us, but certain vices can also emerge in a time of crisis. One such vice is indiscriminate anger. There is plenty of room for righteous anger right now, to be sure. But there is another kind of anger that fills us with pride and drives us to lash out recklessly at anybody who even might be to blame.
No doubt, justice demands that the actions (and inaction) of particular men, mostly priests and bishops, be investigated and dealt with according to the laws of God and man. Justice needs to be served. But we also know that the combat in which we’re engaged goes deeper than this. No, we don’t want to “spiritualize” the concrete, flesh-and-blood, real world dimension of the crisis. We need to meet that challenge head-on. But we also need to rip the curtain back from behind these bad actors to reveal the one who directs them, our true enemy.
As St. Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12: “For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness.”
Satan thrives on anonymity, but is too unsubtle to stay hidden. In the Church’s Night Prayer every Tuesday, we read the following text from the First Letter of Peter (5:8-9): “Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith.”
There are myriad points of attack the Devil chooses, depending upon the circumstances and the particular people he wants to conquer. But one of his chief attacks is against our faith. He is the Father of Lies, and one of the most fundamental lies he tells is that of the inevitable triumph of evil. That he is stronger than Christ.
And before dismissing this lie, we should take a moment to feel its weight, its gravitas. Satan is the “strong man” referred to in the parable with which this article began. And his strength is terrible to behold. It is impressive enough when he is just doing his usual thing, winning over dictators and drug dealers and human traffickers. But when he wins over bishops and priests, God’s chosen and consecrated ones, it becomes easy to skip past discouragement and go right into despair.
But Satan is also a bully, and one of the hallmark characteristics of a bully is that he is able to magnify his strength in the minds of his victims. Here is where St. Peter comes in as our spiritual coach gives us a potent one-sentence halftime speech: “Resist him, solid in your faith”(!).
The texts of Night Prayer are often read in somewhat subdued, even somniferous, tones. But I don’t think it’s foreign to the spirit of the text to give it the kind of “oomph” a football coach, or even a general, would give it. Faith is the weapon for this battle, and the antidote to the poison of discouragement. And faith in turn breeds hope, which is the antidote to despair.
In what do we place our faith? In whom? We believe that Jesus Christ is the “stronger man” who “attacks and overcomes (Satan), (who) takes away the armor on which he relied and distributes the spoils.”
What is “the armor on which (Satan) relied”? Our sin. That we were not kidnapped and taken to Satan’s “palace”–we did not become his “possessions”–against our will. It happened by our choice. Our sin is the source of his defensive strength, his “armor.”
But Christ comes to us as the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), the almighty Son of the Father, the “stronger man”. And with his coming among us, humanity is thrust into the deepest crisis it will ever know, according to the root meaning of the word “crisis”, which refers to a moment when things are separated, a moment of decision and judgment.
The Greek word krisis was used by Hippocrates to refer to the turning-point in a disease, and with Christ’s raid upon Satan’s stronghold we’re at the turning point in the disease of human sin. By putting our faith in Christ, by recognizing his infinite superiority over the Devil, that He is the Creator and Satan only a creature, however strong, we resist the Devil and share in Christ’s victory.
This kind of victory-language is present in Isaiah 49:24-25, which is a foreshadowing of Our Lord’s parable and a prophesy of his triumph over Satan:
Can plunder be taken from a warrior,
or captives rescued from a tyrant?
Thus says the LORD:
Yes, captives can be taken from a warrior,
and plunder rescued from a tyrant;
Those who oppose you I will oppose,
and your sons I will save.
In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI cites St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who writes of Christ’s baptism, “When he went down into the waters, he bound the strong man.” Christ goes to war for us, and he saves us from an enemy we could never defeat on our own. And all of this is not just a kind of “once upon a time” story, however glorious. “Throughout all its history, the world is powerless to defeat the ‘strong man,’” Benedict writes. “He is overcome and bound by one yet stronger, who, because of his equality with God, can take upon himself all the sin of the world.”
Christ is with his Church today. He is the “stronger man” in this moment of the Church’s history. He is with us in the midst of the Church’s crisis, and in whatever personal crises we face. We read in John’s Gospel (12:31), “Now is the judgment of the world; now will the prince of the world be cast out.” The “now” to which Jesus refers is also our “now.”
It is essential to recognize that Christ does not do battle with Satan as if they were evenly matched powers. Such conceptions, according to Romano Guardini in his book, The Lord, “are unchristian and cannot be taken seriously.” Guardini continues:
God has no antipode. He exists in pure freedom and holiness in himself, sufficient unto himself. All true being is contained in him, and there is nothing that exists ‘beside’ or ‘opposite’ him. Satan is no principle, no elementary power, but a rebellious, fallen creature who frantically attempts to set up a kingdom of appearances and disorder. He has power, but only because man has sinned. He is powerless against the heart that lives in humility and truth. His dominion reaches as far as man’s sinfulness, and will collapse on the Day of Judgment–a term long in itself, for every moment of evil is dreadfully long for those who stand in danger of Satan–but only a moment as compared with eternity. “Soon,” as the Apocalypse reveals, it will be over (3:11; 22:7).
We receive the power of Christ every time we receive the Holy Eucharist, because we receive Christ himself. His sacramental appearances all signify weakness, but he is full of power.
Well, all of his appearances signify weakness except one. By coming to us as Food and Drink, the appearances of bread and wine suggest strength, however quietly. Strength communicated. Strength given to us. Strength entering into us and making us strong from within.
I was very much struck last month during Mass on the feast of St. Andrew Kim and his companions by a line from the Prayer After Communion. It referred to the Holy Eucharist as the “food of the valiant”. That’s what we need, and what the Church needs from us right now, to be valiant. Not prideful. Not rash. Not pretending that we know everything and are ready to solve every problem right here and now. But valiant. Ready for the battle ahead. Ready for the battle into which we’ve been thrust with jarring speed. Ready to resist our enemy the Devil with that solid faith in Christ which cannot fail us.
The battle in which we are currently engaged, in all of its moral, juridical, pastoral, and spiritual dimensions, can be bewildering and disheartening at times. But we have the opportunity to face this battle as Christ’s valiant comrades-in-arms, putting our faith in him and his surpassing strength. We would do well to remember these words from the Letter of St. James (4:7-10):
So submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you of two minds. Begin to lament, to mourn, to weep…Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.