The means of overcoming the devil: sermon on Sexagesima Sunday

“The devil cometh and taketh the word out of their heart, lest believing they should be saved.”

On Sexagesima Sunday, the last Sunday but one before the start of Lent, both the epistle and the gospel remind us of the reality of diabolic activity. St Paul, in that long description of his own trials, includes the fact that he endured a certain sting or thorn in the flesh, which he calls “an angel of Satan”. Our Lord, in explaining the reasons why the seed that He sows does not always bear fruit, mentions in first place the birds who peck the seed off the path: the fallen spirits who can cause us immediately to forget the words of life when we hear them. 

What does the New Testament tell us about these fallen spirits? It calls them “principalities and powers”, suggesting how much their natures surpass our human nature, since they were once angels. It also calls them “rulers of this world of darkness”, not as if they were in overall charge of what happens on earth, but because whenever people place their hopes in this world, their minds become dark, and they become so much the more easy for the fallen spirits to control. You may know the story of the hermit who was living in the desert outside a large and very corrupt city, and who one day was granted a vision of the demons and what they do. This hermit was surprised to see a great number of demons swarming in the air around his own hut and around the huts of his fellow hermits, but only one or two walking up and down in the great city, keeping an eye on the inhabitants. But then he understood that the demons were putting almost all their energies into tempting the people who were harming them by their prayers and fasting, his fellow hermits and himself, and that they simply didn’t need to do much in the city, since it was already almost entirely under their power.

The Bible also tells us about the boldness and persistence of the fallen spirits. Boldness, because the devil dared to enter even into paradise, to tempt our first parents. So, today, no faithful religious community, or happy marriage, or chaste courtship, or good Christian family, or fervent parish will be free from his assaults — on the contrary! And persistence, because it is part of their angelic nature that having once set themselves a goal (in their case, the goal of keeping mankind away from the kingdom of heaven from which they themselves were expelled), the fallen spirits persevere in seeking that goal without rest. “Be sober, be vigilant,” says St Peter, “for your adversary the devil, prowls round like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.”

Faced with such formidable foes, what are we to do? Evidently, we are not to rely on our own strength, nor on any success we may have had until now in resisting temptations. St Thomas Aquinas, commenting on the words of God to Job, “Will you be able to draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook and will you bind his tongue with cord?”, says that man cannot in any way overcome the devil by his own power, and that to try to do so would be like trying to catch a whale with a fishing rod, and that having done well in the past provides no guarantee for the future. Remember King David, who was so generous and devout in his youth, but who in his middle age fell into adultery and as a result into treachery and murder; though thanks to be to God, he repented.

No, in our fight against the devil, our only confidence must be in the grace of God, and this grace is obtained by prayer. By prayer we put ourselves into direct contact with the Blessed Trinity, before whom the devil and his angels are as nothing. Prayer, morning and evening and in time of temptation. Yes, we are weak, but our very weakness will make it all the more glorious if by the grace of God we persevere to the end. “To him that shall overcome,” says Jesus Christ, “I will give to sit with me in my throne, as I also have overcome, and am set down with my Father in his throne.”