March 19, 2022 Essay: The Struggle with Evil
What we hear at the beginning of each Lent is a story about evil. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each record the temptations Jesus had with the devil during his forty days and nights in the Judean desert. These struggles were real; they were not some kind of empty charade he was going through. Jesus was fully human, and we are reminded in the Letter to the Hebrews that the reason Jesus is capable of feeling our weaknesses is because “he was tested in every way that we are, though he was without sin”. Throughout his brief public ministry, he confronts evil in every form. There was sickness, ignorance, and fear. There was lack of faith, and finally death itself, which St. Paul calls “the last of the enemies Christ has overcome”.
If we are to be, in any sense, like Christ, we have to confront the many forms of evil that assail us now. There are evils from without. We have been battered by the evil of a COVID pandemic for the past two years, and now by the evil of war and destruction in Ukraine. Then, too, there are the demons within us: lack of faith or purpose to life, sinful tendencies, false gods. It is a struggle to overcome these evils, and we are called to do this daily.
Often we feel helpless. This is a sign that we need each other and the grace of God. We need an awareness of God’s presence—a real presence that will sustain us, no matter what. There is the final evil of death that we absolutely cannot overcome without this presence. When the Hebrew writer wrote the most beloved of all psalms, Psalm 23, he wrote: “Even though I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me.” For Christians that presence has a name. It is Jesus.
In Jesus’ earthly life, God’s love had a face. Jesus was totally charismatic and drew large crowds to himself. Now he is invisible to us. But he becomes visible through people. It happens through their selflessness and compassion, through the witness of their lives.
Here is a simple example. A child cries out in the darkness of night. The mother or father goes immediately to the child’s side and speaks those famous words, “It’s all right. Don’t be afraid”. The child is eventually comforted and goes back to sleep. But what’s all right? All the terrible things that can and do happen in the world are still there, death among them, waiting for another time. What’s all right? What is the secret of the child’s peace?
The secret of the child’s peace is a loving presence: the parent. For that moment of consolation and peace by the bedside, God is given a voice, embodied in a person, just as truly as God spoke and was embodied in Jesus. A loving presence has enabled that child to overcome its fears.
We can be certain evil is not going to disappear from our world. It is woven into the very fabric of existence. And we would be helpless before its power if God’s love were not more powerful still. We overcome evil every day by our acts of goodness, just as we dispel the darkness in a room by turning on the light.
Jesus warned that the world will challenge us, but we are not to be afraid. In five words that we should brand on our memories, he said, “I have overcome the world”. In John’s gospel, “world” is a symbol of all the dark powers that are not God. God overcomes them only through us, his graced servants, who strive to live something of a divine life and embody Christ to each other.
– Fr. William J. Bergen, S.J., Senior Priest