PEOPLE WHO FOLLOW the world news reports in the media have become familiar with the Arabic word jihad describing certain radical movements in Islam. What the news reports don’t mention is that jihad, or struggle, is also a fundamental dynamic in Christian spirituality. It is more commonly referred to in Christian writings in the Greek equivalent, ascesis (asceticism), which also means struggle.
In the famous passage from Ephesians read at today’s Liturgy, St Paul describes this struggle in physical imagery, while insisting that our opponents are spiritual, not physical. In v. 12 he says, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age.” In some English translations the Greek word pali (wrestle) is translated as contend or struggle to avoid the suggestion of physical wrestling. The struggle is spiritual because our opponents are ‘the rulers of the darkness of this age.”
In the first century ad, when this epistle was written, the Roman world was characterized by belief in many gods and goddesses, the worship of the emperor and the promotion of social practices such as abortion and infanticide. Early Christians identified such practices as “works of the flesh” and distanced themselves from them, affirming their higher allegiance to the kingdom of God.
The letter from an unnamed disciple to Diognetus, written in the early second century, summed up this conflict of allegiances: “Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.
“They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum up all in one word–what the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world.”
>What Is the Darkness of Our Age?
Every age has its own version of the culture of darkness: works of the flesh which “everybody” sees as acceptable and which takes us far from the way of Christ. Over the past century, people in our “modern age” have glorified genocide, human trafficking, racism and slavery as acceptable and in some cases even as divinely sanctioned. Simply because the state or the dominant population sees something as a good, does not make it alright before God.
Christians today, as in the first centuries, are called to live in the world, yet not to be of the world: not to embrace the values of the age when they conflict with the Gospel of Christ. Some of the values of this age today resemble those of first-century Rome while others have changed. We can identify the following:
Belief in many gods – While few in our society honor the gods of paganism, many accept no god or moral authority above the individual. Each individual is free to be their own god, as it were. This belief in the autonomy of each individual has freed many people from being dominated by more powerful forces. It has also deceived people into believing that they have a “right” to anything they fancy. They can determine their own gender at will, transform the nature of marriage or determine the length of their own life. Abortion has become a woman’s “reproductive right,” with no reference to the “rights” of the child she is carrying. Belief in our autonomy makes gods of us all.
Belief in politics – We do not worship an emperor as did the Romans, but we may be said to worship politics. A value is often embraced, not because it is right, but because it is politically correct. If enough activists on social media espouse a value, politicians will endorse it. If a value, though righteous, is unpopular, few will risk the damage to their reputations if they endorse it. Pollsters and political analysts are now the “priests” conducting our modern version of emperor worship.
Patriotism – St Paul urged his readers to pray for the emperor and in our liturgical services we continue to intercede for all those in the service of our country. We do not, however, automatically endorse all the actions of our government or armed forces. We know that our ultimate allegiance is to the kingdom of God. We are, in a real sense, only “sojourners” here. We are to “obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by [our] lives” (Letter to Diognetus). A true Christian presence in society elevates it, rather than simply follow its lead. The Christian presence in any country is not meant to surrender its soul to the spirit of the age, but to be the soul of the world itself.
Can you fill in the blanks on the cover drawing? If you’ve read Eph 6:10-17, you probably can.
Christ Himself Is Our Armor
While St Paul assigns specific meanings to each element of God’s armor, we should not see these elements as disconnected or impersonal. Commenting on the passage, St Jerome stresses their interconnectedness in this way.
“From what we read of the Lord our Savior throughout the Scriptures, it is manifestly clear that the whole armor of Christ is the Savior Himself. It is He whom we are asked to put on. It is one and the same thing to say, Put on the whole armor of God and “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Our belt is truth and our breastplate is righteousness – but the Savior is also called truth and righteousness. So no one can doubt that He Himself is that very belt and breastplate.
On this principle He is also to be understood as the preparation of the gospel of peace. He Himself is the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation. He is the sword of the Spirit, because He is the Word of God living and efficacious, the utterance of which is stronger than any helmet and sharp on both sides.”
Commentary on Ephesians 3.6.1