Each year on the First Sunday of Lent, we hear the different accounts of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Of course the Church puts this before us each year to bring to the minds of the Faithful that it is Christ Himself Who has consecrated these 40 days of fasting and spiritual warfare. Our Lenten practices are simply participations in His time in the desert in which He won many graces for each one of us individually. In His battle with the Devil, He won for us victory over every form of temptation that he throws at us. But one is always left with a nagging question after reading these Gospel accounts, namely, did Satan know Who Jesus was?
There is always a great danger, even in our own spiritual lives, to ascribe more power and knowledge to the devil than he actually has. So it is helpful to look at angelic knowledge in general and the effect that the Fall of the angels had on Satan and his minions. Unlike man, who by nature knows ideas by abstracting from sense knowledge, angels know through an infusion directly by God. Even though angelic knowledge is on a higher plane than human knowledge, it is limited. For example, angels cannot know the future because that belongs only to God. Likewise, they cannot know the secrets of our thoughts even if they can sometimes deduce from our outward actions or a change in countenance. For example, they may deduce we are scared because they observe our heartrate increasing or frightful images appearing in our imagination.
By nature, Lucifer was the highest of all God’s creatures because he had the greatest natural knowledge of God. Although it was greater than all the other creatures it was still less than God’s knowledge of Himself. This share of God’s knowledge of Himself is only available through grace in the Beatific vision, namely to see God face to face. Lucifer never saw God in His essence though because of his fall from grace. According to St. Thomas it was this knowledge (that he wanted (so as to be like God) and could not obtain on his own and so fell. The important point is that Lucifer did not know God in His essence nor can he know anything in the order of grace. While his knowledge is great, it always remains on the natural level.
From these two facts, we can conclude two things. First, there is no way that Satan could have known anything about the Crucifixion, Resurrection, etc. because those events belong to the order of grace. Nor could he deduce anything from Christ’s countenance as to Who He was because He was always in perfect control of His emotions and imagination. Satan could get no read on Him because of this. But what Christ did reveal to Him was that He was hungry and so He was clearly a man who had physical needs just like every other man.
It is Satan’s inability to get a read on this seemingly ordinary man, Jesus of Nazareth, that ultimately causes the Temptation. He can detect something remarkable about Him, but what it is exactly he cannot say. Each of his three temptations that he puts before Christ are really his way of probing into his real identity.
His minions too will be perplexed by Him later on. All the Jewish exorcists at the time invoked God’s name to expel demons. Jesus does it using His own authority. They try gaining authority over Him by saying His name (an authoritative act) and nothing happens. So while they may witness His power and declare Him the “Holy One of God,” they had no way of knowing that He was in fact the Second Person of the Trinity, God made flesh. As St. Paul says “none of the rulers of this age knew; for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8). In essence if they had known Who He was, they would not have done something that would have led to their final defeat (1 Cor 15:24-28).
What this really comes down to is the fact that the Incarnation is completely and totally incomprehensible to Satan. He could not even have conceived that God would condescend so deeply as to take on true human flesh and to allow Himself to experience need and to suffer deprivation. Through the paradigm of his deadly pride, no God that could possibly be above him would stoop so low to raise the “hairless bipeds” (to borrow a phrase from Lewis’ Screwtape Letters) so high. As St. Ambrose says Satan may have known that the Son of God would come, but “he did not think that He had come in the weakness of the flesh.”
In many ways, it is the disdain for His divinity that remains a stumbling block for many of us as well. It seems the more we are in the grips of pride, the harder it become to believe. It is almost as if there is a steady refusal to believe not because it is unbelievable but because it is too good to be true. We need to honestly exam ourselves by asking, “If I were God, would I do it that way?” Only insofar as we can put on the “logic of the Incarnation” can we begin to see the depth of Christ’s humility and love for us. In this holy season of Lent, may we enter into combat on all forms of pride by keeping the humility of the Incarnation ever in sight.