The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Last week Saturday, Anthony and I went to the Kurentovanje festival in Cleveland. Kurentovanje is a Slovenian celebration that occurs before Lent and is meant to drive away winter. The reality is that the festival is an excuse to gather Slovenians and wanna-be Slovenians together, to eat delicious Slovenian sausages and pastries, drink Lasko beer, and dance to fabulous polka music. So, if winter isn’t exactly driven away, at least you can forget about it for a while as you party.
The centerpiece of the festival are Kurenti, which are creatures that originate in the Slovenian Alps. When they appear in these pre-Lenten days winter is supposed to flee in fear. The problem is that Kurenti are not very fearsome and are in fact pretty lovable, resembling large walking haystacks with cow bells attached on their waist. It is when they swing their hips, making those clanging cow bells ring, that winter is supposed to flee from the sound. So adorable are the Kurenti, most people I saw that day fled toward them, wanting to engage them in a polka, or taking selfies.
But there were some truly terrifying and evil looking creatures at the Kurentovanje. Outside on an enclosed patio area there was an ice sculpting competition taking. When I opened the door to this patio from the building we were in, I encountered two creatures that so frightened me, I nearly leapt out of my skin. Standing there - enjoying a couple of beers - were two Krampus’s. Krampus is a central European creature of Germanic origins. He usually appears around the feast of St. Nicholas and is meant to frighten children into being good, so that they get treats for the holiday. If they are not good, Krampus drags them into the woods. Pretty frightening stuff. Evidently these two Krampus’s felt that they could be of more use beyond the month of December, and supplement the more gentle Kurenti into frightening winter away.
Have you ever seen a Krampus? Their bodies resemble the Wookie in Star Wars; big, tall and hairy. But their heads. On my gosh, their heads are big half goat, half demon with long twisted horns, ruby red glowing eyes, mouths agape with huge razor-like fangs. They are devilishly terrifying, the personification, (or better put, creaturization) of pure evil. Winter and I were ready to flee at the sight of them.
Today’s Gospel story is of Jesus’s being driven into the wilderness for forty days and being tempted by the devil with three significant temptations: the desire to turn to material things – like bread in both its literal and metaphorical sense – for creaturely comforts and gain; the temptation of power and control over earthly principalities, in return for fealty to the devil; and the temptation to test God to see if God is true to God’s self.
This event in Jesus’ life is what we premise the forty-day season of Lent on.
I often wonder what image comes to mind when we hear of these three temptations of Jesus by the devil. What did the devil look like?
Did the creature in the wilderness look like Krampus? Or maybe a little demon in red tights with horns, a pointy tail and a pitchfork? Maybe he looked like Al Pacino in the film The Devil’s Advocate? Or better yet, the bald, androgynous, spectral creature that slithered around in Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ?
These are all personifications of the devil, Satan and evil. Certainly, something that looked like one of them, or a combination there-of, was what Jesus encountered and resisted. Right?
Yet my hunch is that it was none of the above. In fact, all of these images of the devil and evil are products of the human imagination. And as such, they can allow us to trivialize evil as a caricature, a mythological creature, a Hollywood fantasy. Something to frighten children into behaving. As anyone of those things, we can then dismiss evil as being real. But doing that is to fall into evil’s trap. “Let me manifest myself as a cartoonish, Halloween caricature that they don’t take seriously, distracting them from the real me,” evil says.
The Church takes evil seriously. In the Great Litany we beseech God to deliver us, “from deceits of the world, flesh and the devil.” In the baptism service parents, godparents, and if old enough, the baptismal candidate themselves, are asked if they will, “renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” Evil is a very real, powerful, insidious and seductive force in the world. And it is relentless in trying to gain entry into our lives. Witness that at the end of Jesus’s temptations we are told, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time.” Evil wasn’t done or defeated. It just went away to plan a new assault, waiting for a better opportunity to invade Jesus’s life. And so it does with us as well.
This is why the Church takes evil seriously. We understand how insidious its soft, seductive voice whispering in our ear is like as it attempts to lure us toward it, and away from God.
In the first letter of Peter we are told, “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” (1 Peter 5:8-9a) That is what Jesus did in the wilderness; he resisted, firm in his faith. His witness is an object lesson for us to learn from.
The devil tempted Jesus with creaturely comfort and lucre, with power and control, and of tempting God to prove God’s authenticity. All three violate the Ten Commandments and the distillation of the law that Jesus gave us to love God and to love neighbor. All three are idolatry, which is arguably the greatest sin addressed in the Bible.
In those three temptations, Jesus needed to decide how he was going to live his life. Enslaved to the ways of the devil and the world, or loyal to God and the values of God’s reign. In each instance, despite how enticing the temptations were, he chose God, not the devil.
We all get tempted by the devil with those very same temptations each day. And we, like Jesus, need to decide who we will be loyal too: the ways of the evil or the ways of God.
Have you ever heard the expression, “the devil is in the details?” It’s true. Evil loves to work in the minutia; in the seemingly small things of life.
Too often we relegate evil to the identifiable macro events: 9/11, the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, the crimes against the people of Yemen. These are evil, but they occur as a result of the accrual of the small ways as evil invades our lives.
When we gossip about, slander, demean or engage in character assassination of another person, that’s evil at work in our lives.
When a family member, friend, co-worker or neighbor make anti-Semitic, misogynist, racist or homophobic comments, and we stay silent in the face of it, that’s evil at work in our lives.
When we intimidate, denigrate, bully, manipulate, plot against, or abuse someone, that’s evil at work in our lives.
When we are parsimonious toward giving of our time, talent and treasure to organizations that work for justice, righteousness, harmony, beauty and peace in the world, but are extravagant with those resources to fulfill our every whim, desire and lust, that’s evil at work in our lives.
Those may seem like small things. Some even innocuous. At best we might consider them bad behavior. But trust me, they are evil insidiously at work in us. And they more we engage in them or allow them to go unchallenged, and the more others see us do them and emulate them, they accrue to the big explosions of evil that blow up in the world. We have only to look at what has happened in our own nation these past few years to know this is true.
We are in the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday’s invitation to a holy Lent calls us, among other things, to engage in self-reflection and repentance. I invite you as we begin our journey through this season, to reflect on how evil has gained entry into our lives, and to repent of those things we have said and done to aid and abet its power and influence. Then renounce this evil power that corrupts and destroys God’s creatures. When we do we make a new beginning, forgiven and redeemed by God, so we can role model our Savior Jesus, resisting the wiliness of the devil in all its iterations, and finally “beat down Satan and his insidious ways under our feet.”
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.