“he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

This is the reflection I prepared this past Sunday for my worshipping community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey.

This week’s Old Testament passage is one of the most famous passages in Scripture. Adam and Eve have transgressed the one and only command given to them and eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This has resulted in them becoming aware of their own nakedness. They have hidden from God, with Whom they used to have a “face-to-face” relationship. God now comes looking for them and asks them what they have done. Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. And the serpent does not have a leg to stand on. Thus, God curses the serpent. The passage ends there today, but we know how it continues. Adam and Eve likewise are cursed and thrown out of the garden to toil for the rest of their lives, and then, with immortality lost, they will die. To gain the full import of the curse upon the serpent, we need to be aware of the Fall of the man and woman and what it means, for God says to the serpent in verse 15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” This verse is hugely important, so I will meditate on its meaning and significance hereon out.

First, who is the serpent? The serpent, of course, is the Devil, that fallen angel who leads the band of other fallen angels, unrepentant and in rebellion against God. Did he manifest himself literally in human history as a snake, or is this story more symbolic in its portrayal of Satan’s testing of humanity, of him luring our forebears and each of us ourselves into sin? I do not know. But it is certainly the case that every generation of humans finds itself confronting the serpent, whispering his lies about God into our hearts, luring us away from the truest, happiest path in the universe to pursue his path. And so we go, lured away by the Devil, thinking we are doing it “my way”, and abandoning the path for which we were made. The general testimony of the Bible about Satan is that he exists to accuse humans; he and his demons are in enmity with God and with us; he has some sort of claim over the souls of dead humans as a result of sin; he was cast out of heaven by the Archangel Michael; his final downfall at the hands of Christ is assured. Despite the sensationalism of Hollywood and Frank Peretti novels, the main business the Devil and his minions are up to in our own lives is tempting us to sin and distracting us from God.

Second, what is the primary part of the curse on the man and the woman? Earlier in Genesis, God had warned the man and the woman that if they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would “die die”, often translated in English as “you shall surely die” or “die the death”. In Latin, this manner of Hebrew emphatic speech is given as “die by death,” and Greek doubles it up with an emphatic verb for “die” as well as “by death.” And that this death would occur on that very day. Yet here we see Adam and Eve very much alive on the day they have eaten the fruit. And they live to be expelled from the garden for years before they finally die. Ancient Christians see here in this emphatic double death two deaths. The second death is the bodily death we immediately think of when we think of death. The first death, however, is the departure of God from their souls and lives. God, says St Augustine of Hippo, is the life of the human soul. He is the true Spirit. His departure, then, is the death of the human soul. Adam and Eve, and we ourselves, are no longer intimately united to God. They (we), in fact, fear Him. By the time God comes seeking them, Adam and Eve have already died the first death.

This death of the soul leads to a disjointed human life, self-alienation. We find ourselves living in and crying out from the depths. We wish to do good but cannot. Sometimes even the good we seek to do turns into evil in the very act! As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says in The Gulag Archipelago, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Thus, not only do humans die physical death, which itself can be a terrible thing and fills most humans with dread (even Our Lord groaned at the death of Lazarus—Lazarus whom He would momentarily raise to life!!), we die a spiritual death of the soul long before that. This state of sorrow as we walk this earthly existence is found at the beginning of today’s Psalm 130:1-3:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?

Third, how is verse 15 fulfilled? In today’s Gospel passage, Mark 3:20-35, we see Jesus accused of casting out demons by the power of the serpent. After scorning this idea, Jesus presents the image of the strong man who breaks into someone’s house. Unless that strong man is bound and the house protected, he’ll come back. Jesus is the One Who will bind the strong man. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is waging war against the powers of darkness. Although the serpent and his minions clearly don’t realise the full truth of Jesus’ identity, there is more demonic activity in the Gospels than in the Old Testament, Acts, or the history of the church. They see something going on in Him, and they fight back. Jesus is the son of Eve prophesied in Genesis 3. He has come to bruise the serpent. So the serpent lashes out—hence all the demons who meet with Jesus. But the serpent undoes himself by his own attack on the Lord’s Anointed. For his own plan, and that of the fallen humans who have lost sight of the one, true, and living God, culminates in the unjust, public, humiliating execution of the Messiah, seeking to crush any hopes of salvation for the human race.

The serpent bites the heel of Eve’s Son.

But He crushes the serpent’s head.

The paradox of how Satan’s own plan undoes itself is encapsulated in a few lines of poetry by the fourth-century poet St Ephrem the Syrian:

The evil one fled from Him for awhile.

In the time of crucifixion he arrived,

and by the hand of the crucifiers he killed Him

so that He fell in the contest with death

to conquer Satan and death.

Hymns on Virginity 12

Christ has not died the first death whereby God departs from the human soul. Christ has not sinned. He does not deserve this second death, the death of the body. The ransom the devil is owed for his human life is taken unjustly. Not only that, Christ Himself is the one, true, and living God. Mortality cannot hold Him. And so, trampling down death by death, He destroys the power of the serpent and the power of death, undoing the curse and enabling humans to live according to the true, good nature in which God had first created them. Us. All we need do is trust in Him and accept the gift that His conquest of the serpent provides us.

Fourth, what are the ramifications of this for the human race? The ramifications of the destruction of the power of the devil are manifold. We can live forever. We can be freed from the corrupting power of sin. We can, therefore, resist the temptations we face from the serpent and his fallen angels. Not only this, but with the death of God on a Cross, humanity will never be the same again. God did not merely take onto Himself the just penalty for our wrongdoings when He was crucified (but that is certainly part of it!), He also brought humanity into divinity in a mysterious manner. What this means is that the regenerated life that accepts the gift of God in Jesus Christ finds itself on a new, better trajectory than the one in Eden before the Fall, intimately united with the life of Christ, its head. God’s plan is ultimately for the good—or rather, the best. We find ourselves invited to participate in the divine life when we accept the saving death of Jesus, when we enroll as His apprentices, and when we die to ourselves and rise again through the waters of baptism. We participate in that divine life at the Holy Communion.

And we will participate in it in the most glorious fashion in the final days, in the new heaven and the new earth, when we behold God face to face in that vision that brings true, ultimate happiness. This is the destiny of all who accept the fulfilment of the promise of Genesis 3:15. Eve’s Son has crushed the head of the serpent, and everything sad is coming untrue. We will live forever in glory. This is the promise of today’s epistle reading, 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Fifth, what is our here-and-now response to this good news? Worship and praise of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, to close, a pair of hymns from the Orthodox hymn book, the Octoechos:

TROPARION

By Your Cross, You destroyed death.

To the thief, You opened paradise.

For the Myrrhbearers, You changed weeping into joy.

And You commanded Your Disciples, O Christ God,

To proclaim that You are risen,

Granting the world great mercy.

KONTAKION

The dominion of death can no longer hold men captive,

For Christ descended, shattering, and destroying its powers.

Hades is bound, while the prophets rejoice, and cry out:

The Saviour has come to those in faith.

Enter, you faithful, into the resurrection.

Fighting the Demons 2: Saint Savvas

Our first examination of the fight with demons was that of St. Antony, the locus classicus of the monastic fight with the Devil in the ancient world (here with an older post here), followed by an unplanned post on Shenoute’s violent treatment of “the Devil”. Our second look at fighting the demons is from another Greek biography of a desert saint, the Life of Savvas by Cyril of Scythopolis.

St. Savvas (we met him here before) was a Palestinian monk who founded several monasteries including the Great Laura which is still operational today. Savvas had as his custom to spend Lent away from the lauras and coenobia he had founded and live a life of austerity and prayer in the Judean Desert. One Lent, Savvas went to Castellion, the site of an abandoned Roman fort:

He underwent on this hill many trials inflicted by the demons. Doubtless he himself, as a man subject to fear, would have wished to withdraw, but He who had formerly appeared to the great Abba Antony appeared also to him, bidding him have confidence in the power of the Cross; so, taking courage, he overcame by faith and endurance the insolence of the demons.

While he was persevering in uninterrupted prayer and fasting, towards the end of Lent, when he was keeping vigil one night and begging God to cleanse the place from the impure spirits that lurked there, suddenly the demons began to make a beating sound and to display apparitions in the likeness sometimes of snakes and wild animals and sometimes of crows, wishing through such apparitions to terrify him. Since they were thwarted by his perseverant prayer, they departed from the place, shouting in human speech the words, ‘What violence from you, Sabas! The gorge you colonized does not satisfy you, but you force your way into our place as well. See, we withdraw from our own territory. We cannot resist you, since you have God as your defender.’ With these and similar words, they withdrew from this mountain with one accord at the very hour of midnight, with a certain beating sound and confused tumult, like a flock of crows. (Ch. 27, pp. 119-120 in English, trans. R. M. Price)

Following Savvas’ ordeal at Castellion, the old remains of the fort were converted into a coenobium, a monastery where the monks share together a communal life.

Our first point is to see that Christ again, as with St. Antony (but not Shenoute), plays a role. He appears to Savvas and gives him courage, calling him to “have confidence in the power of the Cross.” Christ is the true champion defender of the Christian. He fights alongside us and gives us the strength we need, whether our battle be with demons on a hilltop or the darkness of sin in our own souls. Christ is there to give his followers the strength they need.

The power of Christ is given to us in the power of the Cross. As I mentioned in my post “From what are we saved?”, Pope Leo saw in the Cross, alongside the defeat of sin and death, the defeat of the Devil and his minions. When we put our trust in Christ, our trust in his sacrifice at Golgotha, he gives us the benefits of his most precious death and resurrection. This includes power not only over sin and death but over the Devil.

Thus, trusting the great power of Christ in His Cross, Savvas was able to withstand the forces of the demons.

And what is in the saint’s arsenal against the demons as he trusts in Christ’s Cross? Prayer, fasting, vigils. These are the standard weapons in the battle against the demons. As we trust in the power of the Cross, we pray, we fast, we stay up through the night. Through these actions, in the battle against evil, be it demons appearing as snakes or late-night porno on the internet, the Christian is able to overcome the evil of the world.

Prayer is a given. I think most Christians pray. My (Anglo-Catholic) uncle once said that if you don’t pray and read your Bible, what business do you have calling yourself a Christian?

Fasting is less popular today. It is one of the neglected disciplines, even though Christ seems to imply it is something that his followers will do after the Ascension (see Mt. 6:16-18). If you are interested in fasting, I recommend you read Wesley’s sermon on the subject.

Vigils are even less popular. Oddly, some of the monks of the Desert believed that sleep deprivation was a help in the fight against demons, even though I, personally, find myself stirred up to irascibility much more easily when I haven’t got enough sleep. Nonetheless, I think that sometimes maybe we should organise groups of people to spend the entire night praying. Or to ensure that the entire time a particular event is occurring that there is someone praying, night and day. This soaking of the world in prayer is, I believe, a way to keep us focussed on the spirit, a way to keep us alert against the demons and the evil within us and around us.

These, then, are the lessons we can gain from the example of St. Savvas and the demons.

Shenoute and the Demons: The Limits of Hagiography

I tend to try and find something edifying in much of what I read. So weird stories about demons and stuff don’t necessarily bother me, so long as the example of the monk or the lesson about who God is can be of use. However, despite much wisdom having come from the desert tradition, not everything the Desert Fathers and Mothers had to say and do was necessarily a good idea.

Now, these days most people get uncomfortable with desert monks because of their strong emphasis on avoiding other people. This is a justifiable concern — St. Basil the Great held it as a criticism of his time in Egypt. If you don’t spend time with others, how can you even begin to fulfill the commandments? Nevertheless, this has never been a great concern of mine largely because the monks who say, “Avoid people,” said it to people whom they were ostensibly avoiding.

More troubling is Shenoute, Archimandrite of the White Monastery in Upper Egypt from 385 to 465. Shenoute, as we see him in Besa’s Life of Shenoute, was a violent man whose idea of God’s forgiveness was that one is only forgiven after a sufficient penance set by Shenoute. Or a criminal’s repentance is not enough for salvation — he must also go to the secular authorities and be executed to reach paradise. He is a hard man, dried by the sun and his sparse diet, but it also feels at times that his soul and his very self are hard and dried out.

So when we consider Shenoute and demonology, we come across this story:

One day, when my father was sitting in the monastery, behold! the devil and a host of other demons with him came in and spoke to my father with great threats and wickedness. When my father saw the devil, he recognised him immediately, and straightaway he sprang upon him and grappled with him. He seized him, hurled him to the ground and placed his foot on his head, and shouted to the brothers who were nearby: ‘Seize the others who followed him!’ And they immediately vanished away like smoke. (Ch. 73, trans. David N. Bell for Cistercian)

Was this even the Devil? I mean, what if it was just an angry dude who Shenoute beat up? Or did it even happen? This is certainly a Frank Peretti moment in the world of ancient demonology, is it not?

The root and source of our tradition is Christ. Never does Christ beat up the Devil or step on his head. The Gospels are subtler than that — their presentation of the Devil is subtler than that! The Devil is a tempter in relation to Jesus. The demons, the unclean spirits, are beings that possess people in the Gospels.

The true defeat of the devil does not happen in a wrestling match in your living room or the forecourt of the White Monastery. It occurred on Golgotha when the Lord and King of the universe bled and died for His broken creation. It happened in the three days when that same Lord burst forth from the grave, trampling down death in victory.

Stories like this are there merely to enhance the prestige of their saint. One could argue that that is the whole point of hagiography, but I disagree; hagiography, at least most of what I’ve been reading, is about Christ and his power in people. Christ does not show up in this story, unlike in yesterday’s story of St. Antony.

The desert has its limits. As the desert tradition is gaining a certain amount of popularity today, as it encroaches upon our spirituality, let us stay grounded to the Scriptures and the broader tradition before we start going in for stories about monks who beat up the Devil.