The devil’s back in the news these days. Seriously. Before Lent began, Hollywood released The Rite, a film highlighting the work of Catholic priests who perform exorcisms—a ritual to pray that a person be freed from possession by the devil. St. Anthony Messenger Press was fortunate to produce the audiobook version of the original book, on which the movie is based.
As a priest, I’ve never been part of a “major league” exorcism. That’s reserved for those specially appointed by the bishop, and trained for the ministry. The experience can be—for the priest-exorcist—a head-on confrontation with demonic powers. And so special preparation is needed. All priests can do other kinds of exorcisms, however, not directly related to authentic demonic possession. The rites for Baptism contain exorcism rituals, which are used to pray for protection against evil, and the work of the devil in our world. On the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent, these rituals take place at Sunday Mass for adult candidates for Baptism.
As the Lenten season begins, our Sunday Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent gives us a confrontation between Jesus and the devil. It’s an appropriate scene, since the “40 days” spent by Jesus in the desert before the temptation scene are the model for our modern Lenten season. Also, the “baptismal” nature of Lent—preparing folks to be baptized, and renewing the commitment of those already baptized—makes it fitting to tell a story about a head-on confrontation with evil.
Jesus’ temptations take three forms: Could he perform a miracle to relieve his own hunger after 40 days of fasting? Could he throw himself off the top tower of the temple, and thus tempt the Father’s ability to rescue him? Would he be willing to worship Satan in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world?
Attractive offerings, to be sure, but obviously meant only for messiahs, right? Well, maybe not! Priests and ministers—and perhaps others as well—can suffer from a “Messiah complex.” It’s the temptation to presume you can and fix anyone and anything that might be wrong. The payoff? People’s approval, popularity and surely an inflated sense of self. For a while, the attraction is tempting, all right, but the would-be messiah is always headed for disaster.
The bottom line for anyone so tempted comes at the end of Sunday’s Gospel in the words of Jesus which banish Satan: “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”
The season of Lent is all about conversion, as Catholics renew their baptismal commitment to Christ, and walk with those seeking to be members of the Church. That conversion-journey has to involve letting go of the temptation to substitute self for God. We probably won’t need an exorcism to do it, but we will need to open ourselves to God’s love and forgiveness—and that’s a great way to observe Lent!