Monday, February 8, 2016

The Devil's Voice

What does the devil's voice sound like? Is it deep and gravelly--the kind of voice I use when I'm sneaking up behind my children to scare them? Is it soft and sweet--so appealing that one could easily mistake it for an ally's encouragement? Or is it altogether silent--only persisting in one's mind?

Although I'd read the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness many times, I had never considered what the devil sounded like until I was asked to sound like the devil. When I was a first-year seminarian, I was given the task of reading the gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Lent in the congregation where I was training. This was St. John's College in Cambridge, where traditions live far longer than even the oldest member of the college. Several students and a few adults encouraged me to continue the much-loved tradition of reading that particular lesson as the former Dean had read it--evoking the voice of evil when reading the words that the devil spoke: "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." I was terrified.

At first, I thought they were kidding. I thought they were trying to get me to do something that would make me look like an idiot. But as more and more and more people assured me that the Dean had always done it that way, it became clear to me that they were telling the truth. To my horror, it seemed that they expected me--a tenor who actually enjoys singing the alto line in many hymns--to boom the deep baritone required of Satan himself. What would I do?

I don't remember exactly how the conversation went, but the Chaplain, my supervisor, encouraged me to do whatever I felt was best. That was a nice gift of freedom, but it didn't quite resolve the issue. I asked the Dean what he thought, and he asked me what I thought the devil sounded like. Looking back, I dream that there was a deep theological conversation that followed, but I probably just said something deferential like, "Oh, that's a good point. Thank you very much, Mr. Dean. I'll think about that," and walked away. Regardless, I did begin to think about it. A lot. What does the devil sound like?

Two weeks ago, in a bible study on Job, we read the part about Job's wife encouraging her husband to "curse God and die." Although it's clear that the tradition singles her out as the ungodly voice of that moment, I don't fault her for her words. That's what I'd want to do. The tragedy that had befallen Job by that point was more than anyone could bear. As we were considering why she said what she did, I asked the class whether hers might be the voice of Satan in the story. Remember, God gave Satan permission to torment Job to see if he would renounce his faith and turn away from God. Isn't that what Job's wife was asking? I guess sometimes the devil's voice is more familiar to us than we expect.

On Sunday, we'll hear the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. It's a story of hyperbolic proportion. Forty days of fasting and solitary wandering in the wilderness. The devil showing him all the kingdoms of the world and offering them to Jesus in exchange for worship. The devil taking him to the pinnacle of the temple and encouraging Jesus to trust that, as the scriptures say, angels would catch him if he jumped off. Maybe it all happened exactly like that. (It says so in the bible, after all.) But I'd like to think that the voice of the devil is a little less obvious than that. I'm no Jesus, of course, but, when Satan speaks to me, it's a lot harder for me to tell what I'm supposed to do.

If we overdramatize Sunday's reading, we run the risk of making Jesus' temptation unrealistic and easy to thwart. But it wasn't easy. It's never easy. Yet Jesus persisted where all of us fail. Let the devil's voice be a sultry whisper. When I read that lesson so long ago, I whispered the devil's part. All the choir boys started laughing because, well, it was pretty ridiculous. I stand by it, though. When the devil speaks to me, it's hardly loud enough for me to hear, but speak he does. May Jesus' witness give us strength to hear the faintest of tempting voices and turn them away.

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