In the war between heaven and hell, the Incarnation was God’s ultimate covert op against Satan.
Satan, in his haughtiness, could never have imagined that God would humble Himself to the point of becoming fully man. When God had appeared in ancient Israel it was in forms fearsome and fantastic—the pillar of alternating fire and clouds, the whirlwind that accosted Job, the lightning-flecked, amber-yellow storm cloud that astonished Ezekiel.
But a baby born of a virgin, delivered in a manger? Satan never saw it coming.
As St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote in his Epistle to the Tarsians:
Seeing these things, you were in utter perplexity. And you were ignorant that it was a virgin that should bring forth; but the angels’ song of praise struck you with astonishment, as well as the adoration of the Magi, and the appearance of the star. You reverted to your state of ignorance, because all the circumstances seemed to you trifling; for you deemed the swaddling-bands, the circumcision, and the nourishment by means of milk contemptible: these things appeared to you unworthy of God. (The epistle is attributed to St. Ignatius but it is regarded as spurious.)
And for much of His life, Jesus was God undercover: He lived in Nazareth, a tiny little-known spec of a town in a backwater Roman province. He worked as a carpenter. For 30 years, God Incarnate walked the earth, his true identity unbeknownst to the vast majority of humanity.
Satan tried to trap Jesus in His humanity
When Christ first stepped out into public life, his first act—baptism at the hands of John the Baptist—could only further befuddle Satan. Baptism was for the remission of sins. How could God be baptized? How could God ever share in the fated lot of humanity? As St. Ignatius wrote, Satan first saw Christ “baptized as a common man, and knew not the reason thereof.”
Many commentators agree that when Christ subsequently struck out into the desert, Satan was still in the dark about His true identity. Satan betrayed his ignorance in the temptation of Christ. His testing of Jesus was a test in every sense of the word—Satan was trying to ascertain who this man of mystery was. “In the several temptations the single aim of the Devil is to find if He be the Son of God,” writes St. Jerome.
After fasting for forty days and nights Matthew 4 tells us Christ then became “hungry.” At last, Satan saw his chance. “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread,” Satan taunted Christ.
“Now, this expression, If you be the Son, is an indication of ignorance,” St. Ignatius writes. “For if you had known that He was the Son of God, you would also have understood that He who had kept his body from feeling any want for forty days and as many nights, could have also done the same for ever. Why, then, does He suffer hunger? In order to prove that He had assumed a body subject to the same feelings as those of ordinary men. By the first fact He showed that He was God, and by the second that He was also man.”
Christ’s response did little to clarify matters for Satan: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God,” He said. “He said not, ‘I live not,’ but, ‘Man doth not live by bread alone,” that the Devil might still ask, ‘If thou be the Son of God,’” writes a Church father known to us only as Pseudo-Chrysostom (because his writings were once falsely attributed to Chrysostom).
Satan concluded that Christ must be some holy man—but no more, according to Pseudo-Chrysostom. Perhaps such a man could subdue “every necessity of the flesh,” would still be susceptible to “fall by desire of empty glory” in the mind of Satan, Pseudo-Chrysostom writes. So, he next tempted Christ to toss Himself off the top of the temple—which in ancient times loomed high like a skyscraper above Jerusalem—trusting God to send angels to cushion the fall. When that failed, Satan tried to snare God Incarnate with the offer of worldly power.
Christ never explicitly, at least in words, revealed Himself to Satan: “At this, Jesus said to him, ‘Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’”
Satan had hoped to trap Christ in His humanity, hoping that Christ would succumb to the temptations common to all men, thereby disproving His divinity. But in the end, it was Christ’s humanity that tripped Satan up. He never could understand how God could become fully man, thinking the weaknesses of human nature beneath Him and its sins beyond the healing touch of God.
Satan’s blindness to the truth of the Incarnation persisted through Jesus’ ministry. It was on full display when Christ foretold his Passion to the disciples in Matthew 18. “Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, ‘God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.’ He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do’ (Matthew 18:22-23). Peter’s response is classic Satan: a human death would be unworthy of God.
Herod as Satan
Satan does not appear in the infancy narratives, but many Church Fathers saw him represented in the figure of Herod the Great. Herod gives us a graphic image of what Satan incarnate might look like.
Herod married ten women, including the wife of his brother, who also happened to be their niece. Herod seems to have made a habit of murdering relatives. He killed off three of the many sons he fathered, fearing they were plotting against him. He had his favorite wife’s brother drowned and ordered the execution of her grandfather. Finally, she had to go too.
By the time the three Magi showed up, in search of the King of Kings, Herod was near the end of his downward spiral in mind and body. The king’s genitals were rotting and infested with maggots, possibly the symptom of venereal disease. His body was wracked with convulsions and Herod was often left breathless. In the historical fiction series about Roman Emperor Claudius, British writer Robert Graves describes the disgusting disease as a natural evil unique to Herod:
I never heard that it had any name but Herod’s Evil or that anyone else had ever suffered from it before him, but the symptoms were a ravenous hunger followed by vomiting, a putrescent stomach, a corpse-like breath, maggots breeding in the privy member, and a constant watery flow from the bowels. The disease caused him intolerable anguish and inflamed to madness an already savage nature.
Could we imagine a more vivid image of Satan in the flesh than this lecherous tyrant with rotting genitals and breath smelling of death? It was to this monster that the Magi came inquiring as to where the “newborn king of the Jews” had been born.
Herod was “greatly troubled” by this news, according to Matthew 2—and understandably so, as he’d gone to great length to eliminate prospective heirs to the throne.
Satan, like Herod, must have been greatly troubled by the Incarnation. When he had fallen from heavens, the world and its fallen princes became his (as John 12:31 and 2 Corinthians 4:4 suggest). Satan was used to dealing with God in his heavenly court: in Job we see him approached God enthroned to ask leave to tempt Job. But the world was his realm.
Christ came, as He said so often, to bring the kingdom of God. And Satan, like Herod, was determined to hold on to his miserable reign.
“Herod represents the Devil; who as he then instigated him, so now he unweariedly imitates him. For he is grieved by the calling of the Gentiles, and by the daily ruin of his power,” writes Pope St. Leo the Great. Adds Pseudo-Chrysostom: “Both have their own causes of jealousy, both fear a successor in their kingdom; Herod an earthly successor, the Devil a spiritual.”
When the scribes and chief priests informed Herod that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod, like Satan, feigned faith. “Go and search diligently for the child,” Herod told the Magi. “When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage” (Matthew 2:8).
The faith of Herod is a half-hearted faith that seeks to deceive rather than discern the truth. Pseudo-Chrysostom writes that Herod’s response was directly inspired by Satan:
Why does Herod make this enquiry, seeing he believed not the Scriptures? Or if he did believe, how could he hope to be able to kill Him whom the Scriptures declared should be King? The Devil instigated Herod; who believed that Scripture lies not. Such is the faith of devils, who are not permitted to have perfect belief, even of that which they do believe. That they do believe, it is the force of truth constrains them; that they do not believe, it is that they are blinded by the enemy. If they had perfect faith, they would live as about to depart from this world soon, not as to possess it forever.
The Magi never returned. In a fit of paranoid rage, Herod ordered the slaughter of all male infants 2 years or younger in the Bethlehem area, to eliminate the remote possibility that the newborn Messiah might live. It’s unknown how many children perished in this massacre. Tradition fixes the number of the Holy Innocents at more than ten thousand, but even using some of the more modern estimates that put it in the low double digits (or even less), it’s clear that Herod had outdone the horrors of even his past crimes. Soon afterwards, he himself was dead.
When all else failed, Satan, like Herod, turned to murder. If Christ could not sin, surely He could suffer death. But this, Satan’s last play, turned out to be his final undoing. As St. Gregory the Great writes in his commentary on Job:
Who does not know that on a hook the bait is shown and the prong concealed. The bait lures so that the prong can pierce. Our Lord, therefore, coming for the redemption of the human race made of Himself a hook for the destruction of the devil. He assumed a body so that the Behemoth would seek the death of His flesh. …
Christ died on the cross, but it was Satan that was doomed. Christ was pierced in the flesh, but it was Satan who was permanently baited and hooked. The death of Christ brought an end to the reign of Satan, just as His birth marked the end of Herod’s reign.
image: Life of Christ, The Flight into Egypt by Giotto/Wikimedia Commons