Get Behind Me, Satan

Get Behind Me, Satan

Christ’s rebuke of Peter reveals three powerful principles for confronting temptation: we must always know our predominant weakness, we must vigorously reject temptation without compromise, and our response to it must involve a public confession of faith.


Reading: Mark 8:27-33

The following homily was preached to the student brothers during compline. You can listen here or read below:


At Mass next Wednesday, we shall pray to renew our campaign of Christian warfare against spiritual evils: this will mark of course the beginning of Lent. Our combat will be against the temptations of the flesh and the world – against gluttony, lust, avarice and pride – but to these the Tradition does not hesitate to add a third, a true personal enemy: the Devil. Although Christ has definitively ‘bound the strong man’, the Catechism starkly reminds us that God, in a mystery of providence, permits this powerful creature to continue to cause ‘grave injuries… to each person and society’.


We come then to the Gospel: ‘Get behind me, Satan’. Perhaps the fiercest rebuke our Lord issues anywhere in the Gospels. It’s important we give ‘Satan’ its full weight. Yes, it comes from the Hebrew meaning ‘adversary’, but there’s no doubt a Jew would hear this as a proper name. Peter, by balking at the idea of Christ’s Passion, has aligned himself with, indeed identified himself with, the work of Satan – and Jesus is ruthless in unmasking this evil. I would like to use the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, in particular three of the rules for discernment of spirits, as a lens to reflect on the Lord’s response.


Firstly, the Devil thrives on secrecy. Well, in the passage at hand Peter takes Jesus aside to reproach him privately. Peter does so, I suspect, for courtesy’s sake, yet so much the better for the Tempter. Notice how our Lord responds: he refuses to be kept apart – His true identity concerns the Church to be built on Peter. He turns and looks at his disciples, involving them in the exchange, before making the counter rebuke. There’s no question that spiritual combat has a private dimension – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are all to be undertaken secretly – yet, because sin wounds the whole body of Christ, it is never reducible to the individual. We thus need to publicly renounce Satan. We do so literally when renewing out baptismal vows, but we also implicitly resist his purposes, standing firm in faith (1 Pet. 5:9) behind Christ’s battle standard, every time in the liturgy we confess the Holy Name, or sign ourselves with His Cross. Likewise in the confessional, before a priest in the place of Christ, we expose our consciences, and receive absolution ‘through the ministry of the Church’.


The second rule is that Satan targets our predominant fault. Our Lord, full of grace in his sacred humanity and untouched by sin, his only weakness is his human nature. It is on this then that the Enemy focuses. There is no attempt to theologise – no sign of the diabolical exegete of the Desert Temptations – rather there is a simple appeal to the good of bodily life and the natural horror of death. The redeemer of mankind, having taken on a fully human nature, does not deny these truths of nature – but rather subordinates this partial truth to the Father’s will: ‘Father… Remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.


And finally, the third rule, indicating the manner in which this rightful ordering is performed. The Devil flees the courageous, but ferociously pursues the pusillanimous or half-hearted. Here is one explanation for why Peter deserved a response of such vehemence. Recognising clearly the Evil One in the humanly attractive suggestion, the Lord repulses Peter’s devilish suggestion, ‘Get behind me Satan’. This is the agere contra or diametrically opposed action constituting the proper Ignatian reply to the satanic appropriation of Peter’s partial understanding. Temptation, especially in relation to a predominating weakness, cannot be met with any compromise or polite discussion, it must be exorcised. The Lord’s words here are almost identical to those with which he dismisses Satan in the wilderness in St Matthew’s Gospel. Peter was subordinating rightful concern for human life to his own worldly preconceptions of a successful Messiah. Disabused of this notion by the Lord’s severe discipline, his response of uncomprehending silence is exemplary. Humble acceptance of the Lord’s correction – whether directly or by our neighbour – is just one of the ways we learn to be embrace mercy, the mercy we ask for at our Profession: ‘the Lord reproves the one he loves’. (Prov. 3:12)


We have then three sound principles to confront temptation, wherever it comes from. We must be diligent in examining our conscience: let us never be ignorant of our predominant fault at any point in our lives. Secondly, when we do discern the suggestions of the Ancient Foe – even when sweetened by the unwitting mediation of a friendly voice – our rejection of it must be absolutely uncompromising: ‘give no opportunity to the devil’ (Eph. 4:26-7; scripture reading at Wednesday Compline). And lastly, our response must be in some way public – by confessing our faith and receiving the sacraments of faith, we bind ourselves to Christ’s saving work that has ‘disarmed the principalities and powers, and made of them a public spectacle, triumphing over them in it’ (Col. 2:15).


Image: Raffaello Pagni, Christ Vanquishing the Devil (1595), Santa Maria Assunta, Pisa.

Born in Berkshire, Br Daniel was raised in the Faith in a Benedictine parish. Before entering the novitiate in 2018, he read Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge where he remained to complete a doctorate in Theoretical Physics. His years of study confirmed a love for the contemplative life, but also theological debate with those of different world views. C. S. Lewis, St Augustine, and Pope Benedict XVI were formative influences as an undergraduate, whilst more recently he has enjoyed exploring Dante, the twelfth-century Cistercians, and Eastern spiritual theology.

Post a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.