For more reflections on the Basilica Hymns of each season, purchase Perpetual Jubilee: Meditations on the Chaldean Liturgical Year on Amazon.com.
Temptation is an intensely personal reality. The devil, who wishes to trap human souls in sin, is a crafty being and strives with all his might to tempt each one of us using our individual weaknesses. If we are by nature contemplative, he may try to make us lazy. If our personality is energetic, he may tempt us to greed, to wasting that energy on material desires. Even if our tendency is to be loving, he may try to turn that love into lust or into jealousy. Temptation is in a real way handpicked for each individual, and those being tempted can have the sense that their temptation is intensely personal.
But temptation is an extremely ancient reality, and, more importantly to our theme, a universal one. Yes, the devil tempts each one of us according to his own personal weaknesses, but he wants to destroy all of us equally, or, more precisely, he wants to destroy all of us together. He began with this goal in mind, in fact, at the very beginning with Adam and Eve, and not only does he continue today, he constantly prepares for a more and more devious assault in the future:
The enemy looks forward to the evil hardship of the end times, to casting his net to ensnare the sons of men, and with the traps he set for Adam from the beginning he schemes against his sons in the end.
The “end of days” has been a popular theme in Christian literature from the beginning, in fact even from the first book written of the New Testament, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. The concern there is with the “day of the Lord,” (1 Thess. 5:2) on which Christ is expected to return. To the audience of Paul in the early years of the Church, this was expected to happen within their lifetime. But because Christ has patiently waited, our perception can be that the devil is given more time to work.
The Peaceful Wolf
Who would ever sin if sin were presented to them in its fullest reality? How could someone be attracted by an offer to betray God and to cause one’s own destruction? Obviously, if sin is ever to be attractive, it must be disguised. Christ describes this reality in terms of “false prophets:” “beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15) We can ask our question again, then, in the Lord’s terms: who would let a wolf get near them? Only those who did not know it was a wolf.
The evil one has many disguises by which he presents himself to us, both as individuals and as a society. The temptation, for example, to go to war, even unjustly, can be presented as a concern for “national security.” The betrayal of the good of natural marriage can wear the costume of “equality.” Even the murder of millions of children can disguise itself under the clothing of “reproductive rights.” It makes no difference how ugly or ravenous the wolf is; the simplest covering can hide it if we allow ourselves to be fooled. But Christ gives us an imperative, an order, to “beware” of such things, and therefore we are held accountable if we are fooled.
The book of Revelation describes the second beast in its own characteristically creative terms: “it had two horns like a lamb’s but spoke like a dragon.” (Revelation 13:11) The author John continues in his description of how this beast “deceived the inhabitants of the earth” with its great signs (Revelation 13:15). Exactly how this beast fooled everyone is not given much more than a symbolic rendering here. But returning to the beginning, to 1 Thessalonians, we have a hint: “When people are saying, ‘peace and security,’ then sudden disaster comes upon them.” (1 Thess. 5:3). Recalling the peacefulness of the lamb, this ties together the imagery of the wolf in sheep’s clothing of the Gospels as well as the beast with the voice of a dragon but the horns of a lamb. It is through a false “peace” that the evil one may make his deeds attractive to the world:
He will attract the world under the guise of peace, and, if possible, he will lead even the elect astray.
How should we react to such a monster, whose sole purpose is our destruction, but whose expertise at lying helps him deceive us into believing him? The natural reaction, perhaps, is frustration or anger. Though a hatred for sin and for evil can be a healthy thing, this frustration can also be misguided. Unfortunately, we cannot blame the devil for our sins, as Eve did to the serpent in Genesis (3:13). God does not accept this as an excuse, for it was we who sinned, who chose to do so, who allowed ourselves to be tricked by the serpent. And so our frustration is not only with the devil and with the world. Really, our frustration is in ourselves, in our own weakness and tendency to be tricked by the lies of the enemy. How many times are we going to fall?
Moreover, our frustration can be misdirected even to God himself. Perhaps we ask, even as a society, why Christ is delaying so much in returning, why he is allowing the world to fall so far, why he is allowing us to be tempted for so long. This is a lack of trust in God, and in fact it is possible that the book of Revelation was written precisely as a response to this kind of spiritual impatience. The whole point in reflecting on the end times, on the second coming of Christ, is to reaffirm that Christ is in control, and in Christ, who took on the nature of Adam, we as well:
But not only will his desire not be fulfilled, his reign will also end. Before the eyes of all creatures he will be judged with a frightful sentence by you, O Lord, who was called the Second Adam, and all those who have followed in the footsteps of the deceiver will be confused and exposed. Indeed, in the same way do you judge all those who deny you. O Lord of all, glory to you!