“When a strong man fully armed guards his palace, his possessions are safe. But when one stronger than he attacks and overcomes him, he takes away the armor on which he relied and distributes the spoils.”
— Luke 11:21-22

A few years ago, I heard a football coach being interviewed on the radio. The interviewer asked the coach about the opponents his team would be facing that week. The coach demurred, saying (to paraphrase), “We don’t worry about what opponent we’re playing. We just try to get ready to play at a high level.” 

Having once been a football player, in the days before my unstinting pursuit of physical fitness began to stint with a vengeance, and later a coach, I’m pretty sure no serious football program ignores its upcoming opponents. In fact, any decent team studies its opponents with great diligence, hoping to expose weaknesses and maximize their own strengths in each game.

This competitive wisdom also holds true in the spiritual life. We need to know who our opponent is and what his “game plan” entails. This is especially true during a time of crisis in the world such as we’re facing now. A crisis can bring out the best in us, but it can also bring out the worst in us. And a couple of the worst things it can bring out in us are discouragement and indiscriminate anger, the kind of anger that fills us with pride — a sense of moral superiority — and drives us to lash out recklessly at anybody who even might be to blame. It’s the — “Ready. Fire! Aim.” — approach.

No doubt, justice demands that there be change — now — in order to ensure the protection of our African-American brothers and sisters, and that of all people from conception to natural death. We need that justice and mercy that gives all appropriate devotion and respect to our police officers, the vast majority of whom are with us in the struggle. Today, of course, we also need to promote and enforce measures that will control the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

But we also know that the combat in which we’re engaged goes deeper than this. We don’t want merely to “spiritualize” the concrete, flesh-and-blood, real world dimension of the crises we face. But we do need to rip the curtain back from behind those who perpetuate the evils of this world to reveal the one who directs them, our true enemy.

As St. Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12:

“For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness.”

Satan thrives on anonymity, but is too unsubtle to stay hidden. Every Tuesday night the Church’s Night Prayer includes a reading from 1 Peter 5:8-9: “Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith.”

There are myriad points of attack the devil chooses, depending upon the circumstances and the people he wants to conquer. But one of his chief attacks is against our faith. He is the Prince of Lies, and one of the most fundamental lies he tells is that of the inevitable triumph of evil; that he is stronger than Christ.

Before dismissing this lie, take a moment to feel its weight, its gravitas. Satan is the “strong man” referred to in the parable with which this article began. And his strength is terrible to behold. It is impressive enough when he is just doing his usual thing, winning over dictators and drug dealers and human traffickers. But when we see how many people he influences, for example, how many hearts there are in which he can incite racism, it becomes easy to skip past discouragement and go right into despair.

But Satan is also a bully, and one of the hallmark characteristics of a bully is that he is able to magnify his strength in the minds of his victims. Here is where St. Peter comes in as our spiritual coach, giving us one heck of a one-sentence halftime speech: “Resist him, solid in your faith”(!). 

The texts of Night Prayer are often read in somewhat subdued, even somniferous, tones. But I don’t think it’s foreign to the spirit of the text to give it the kind of “oomph” a football coach, or even a general, would give it. Faith is the weapon for this battle, and the antidote to the poisons of discouragement and indiscriminate anger. And faith in turn breeds hope, which is the antidote to despair.

In what do we place our faith? In whom? We believe that Jesus Christ is the “stronger man” who “attacks and overcomes (Satan), (who) takes away the armor on which he relied and distributes the spoils.

What is “the armor on which (Satan) relied?” Our sin. That we were not kidnapped and taken to Satan’s “palace” — we did not become his “possessions” — against our will. It happened by our choice. That is the source of his defensive strength, his “armor.” 

But Christ comes to us as the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), the almighty Son of the Father, the “stronger man.” And with His coming among us, humanity is thrust into the deepest crisis it will ever know, according to the root meaning of the word “crisis,” which refers to a moment when things are separated, a moment of decision and judgment. 

The Greek word krisis was used by Hippocrates to refer to the turning-point in a disease, and with Christ’s raid upon Satan’s stronghold, we’re at the turning point in the disease of human sin. By putting our faith in Christ, by recognizing His infinite superiority over the devil, that He is the Creator and Satan only a creature, however strong, we resist the devil and share in Christ’s victory.

Now, all of this is not just a kind of “once upon a time” story, however glorious. Christ is here now. He is the “stronger man” now. In this moment of history. In these crises we face today. In whatever personal crises you are facing. He is especially with us in the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of His Body and Blood. Even here, where He is most present, Christ’s sacramental appearances all signify weakness, but He is full of power.

Well, all of His appearances signify weakness except one. By coming to us as Food, the appearance of bread suggests strength, however quietly. Strength communicated. Strength given to us. Strength entering into us and making us strong from the inside.

I was very much struck once at a Mass on the feast of St. Andrew Kim and his Companions by a line from the Prayer After Communion. It referred to the Holy Eucharist as the “food of the valiant.” That’s what we need, and what the Church and world need from us right now. To be valiant. Not prideful. Not rash. Not pretending that I know everything and am ready to solve every problem right here and now. But valiant. Ready for the battle ahead. Ready for the battle into which we’ve been thrust repeatedly in this strange and difficult year. Ready to resist our enemy the devil with that solid faith in Christ which cannot fail us.

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote that “not all tears are an evil.” Some moments, in history and in each of our lives, are extremely serious and need to be treated as such. The spiritual battle in which we are currently engaged deserves such treatment. But we also face this battle as Christ’s valiant comrades-in-arms, putting our faith in Him and His surpassing strength. Remember these words from the Letter of St. James (4:7-10):

“So submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you of two minds. Begin to lament, to mourn, to weep ... Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.”

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.