by Very Rev. John Lankeit (Ss Simon and Jude Cathedral)
Homily for March 5, 2017
Watching a really good magician perform makes us wonder how they do what they do. Even as we know that their magic is not really magic at all. Magicians really can’t make things appear out of thin air. After all, if a skillful magician really could make a rabbit or a bird appear out of thin air. Then a wise magician would make money appear out of thin air thus making his need to do shows of magic for a living disappear.
But we don’t tend to ask these kind of logical questions as a trick is unfolding because we get wowed by the show itself. And that’s by design. Much of what constitutes a magician’s magic is nothing more than sleight of hands, skillful distraction on the part of the performer to make the audience pay attention to something in one place, while the important thing is happening in another place. To get us to focus on the insignificant in order to distract us from the important.
Through the use of distraction, a skillful magician creates an expectation in the minds of the audience and then fulfills it in a way that appears to defy common sense, and to violate the laws of physics. A good magician causes the audience to wonder how did he do that? A satisfied audience simply basks in the wonder of the performance and admires the showmanship of the performer.
On the other hand, the quickest way to kill the sense of wonder and awe is to insist on knowing how a magician did a particular trick. It always seems from the outside that knowing how a trick is done would be deeply satisfying, and yet if you have ever learned how a particular trick is done (if you’ve had a magician show you how they do what they do) the sense of wonder is instantly displaced by appointment. The adult intellect and ego might be satisfied by the knowledge for the moment, but the childlike amazement disappears.
That’s what Adam and Eve discovered the hard way. God gave them a share in his own life a home full of beauty and wonder. To top it off he gave them his personal love and friendship.
God asked of Adam and Eve just one thing. “Don’t let your curiosity and desire overtake your gratitude and wonder. Don’t try to know and do what only God knows and does. Receive and delight in the wonders that I bestow on you. Let me be your loving father who lavish as gifts on you, and don’t try to make me obsolete by assuming for yourselves what I willingly provide for you.” So God set a limit for Adam and Eve, symbolized in the command not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Then along came a malicious magician called Satan. Like a professional magician, Satan tries to make human beings believe that he possesses the ability to do things that he actually can’t. Satan works unceasingly to convince us that he has our best interest at heart. He tantalizes with things that delight the eyes, that tempt the tummy, and that stroke the ego. He practices constantly to perfect his craft, every moment of every day.
He paints a picture of a life full of pleasure, power, honor, and wealth, and presents it to each human being for a seemingly small price: disobedience. We can see how he duped Adam and Eve by focusing on his words.
He asked the woman, “Did God really say you shall not eat from any of the trees of the garden.” The woman answered the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden. It is only about the tree of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it, or even touch it; or else, you will die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You certainly will not die. God knows well that when you eat of it, your eyes will be open; and you will be like gods who know good and evil.”
Consider the progression of this dialogue. Satan caused Eve to doubt. “Did God really say.” Then he followed up with a lie. “You won’t die.” Then he suggested a particular course of action. “Take what belongs to God and become a god yourself.”
Like a magician adept at misdirection the devil got Eve to look away from God, and to look to herself. He convinced her to ask, “What’s in it for me,” instead of recalling, “How the Almighty done great things for me.”
And once Eve and Adam realized what had happened, their wonder and joy was overwhelmed by fear. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they knew that they were naked. When they heard the sounds of the Lord God walking about in the garden, the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. The Lord God then called to the man and asked him, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden but I was afraid.”
By learning the hard way how the devil pulled off his trick, their eyes were open and they did indeed know good and evil. God’s good and their evil. Adam and Eve’s firsthand after-the-fact knowledge of the devil’s tactics caused death: theirs, and yours, and mine—-as st. Paul wrote to the Romans in our second reading today: “Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who did not sin after the pattern of the trespass of Adam.”
Satan’s victory against Adam and Eve was to convince them that God, and not the devil, was the cheap magician, who wanted to trick them by keeping the best for himself. By diverting Eve’s attention away from God’s love and pointing to God’s power, he manipulated Eve’s desire and convinced her to take for herself the secret of God’s knowledge. By a simple act of disobedience she could transfer that power to herself and to her husband, or so the devil promised. As soon as she took the bait, and shared it with her husband, the love and joy magically disappeared (just as the devil knew it would).
Much much later the devil set his sights on Jesus. But this time it was the Messiah who prevailed, and the cheap magician who failed. Satan no doubt knew that Jesus was the son of God. The other demons knew it. “Who are you? what are you here to do with us? Jesus we know who you are, the son of God.”
Nevertheless, the devil let his pride get the best of him (as he always does) because he clearly believed that Jesus was vulnerable enough to fall to the same sly tactics he used on Adam and Eve (Son of God, or not). So he started with what he knew Jesus needed at that moment: food. While simultaneously, trying to get Jesus to doubt his true identity.
“If you are the son of God, command that these Stones become loaves of bread.” The devil’s first shot across the bow failed because he was unprepared for Jesus’s total obedience to his father, which Jesus would later sum up to his disciples in these words, “My food is to do the will of my father who sent me.”
When Jesus countered Satan’s first attempt with a scripture quote, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God,” Satan realized that he was not dealing with amateurs like Adam and Eve. So he upped the ante. Pulling another scripture quote out of his hat, he tried to convince Jesus to make a showy display of His divine power.
“If you are the son of God, throw yourself down from this ledge. For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and with their hands they will support you lest you dash your foot against a stone.'”
Jesus countered with yet another scripture quote to fend off the devil’s attack, and to reinforce his own commitment to his father’s will. “Again it is written, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Finally, Satan offered wealth, power, and honor to Jesus if only Jesus would worship Him.
Then Jesus said to him, “Get away Satan. It is written, ‘The Lord your God shall you worship and him alone shall you serve then.'” Then the devil left him, and behold angels came and ministered to him.
Where the devil succeeded in diverting Eve’s focus from God to self, he failed against Jesus because Jesus considered nothing but his father’s will. He kept his eyes and his heart on his father, and the Devils diversions and misdirections failed miserably.
Jesus knows that we are at an even greater disadvantage against the devil than were Adam and Eve because at least they started out in a state of perfect relationship with God, the Father (before the devil attacked).
Their original sin has been passed on to us. Even though this original sin is wiped away at baptism its effects remain with us throughout our life leaving us limping like an injured animal being stalked by a wild predator in the nearby weeds. But God does not leave us in this vulnerable condition just to fend for ourselves.
That’s why he gives us the season of Lent with three particular weapons for the spiritual battle: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. If we use these weapons well, we can defend ourselves against the devil’s cheap parlor tricks which he uses to get us to take our eyes off of God’s love and to focus on our lusts.
So when we fast voluntarily, we deny our appetites. We say no to self, so that we can say yes to God, and yes to our neighbor. We turn away from self by fasting and toward God through prayer. We turn away from self by fasting and toward our neighbor through almsgiving. And by doing so we more fully comply with Jesus dual commandment love God above all things and love your neighbor as yourself.
Against this self-denial aimed at love, the devil’s temptations are as ineffective as Nerf darts against a six inch thick steel wall. Knowing how to use prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, to keep focused in the right direction is not magic. It’s love for God and for neighbor that makes the devil disappear.
The Catholic Mass is broadcast live at 9 a.m. (Arizona time) each Sunday from Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix.