Ephesians 6:10-17; Luke 18:35-43
We often fall into the trap of blaming other people for our problems. That is true whether we are upset with someone in particular or with a group or organization. It is tempting to think that if others would do what we want or at least leave us alone, then all would be well. It does not take too much spiritual insight to see, however, that things are never quite that simple.
St. Paul certainly had ample opportunity to blame other people for all his struggles. He endured beatings, shipwreck, imprisonment, criticism from opponents, and all kinds of difficult challenges within the churches he oversaw; and, of course, he died as a martyr. But when he encouraged the Ephesians to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might,” he stressed that “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Paul had the insight to see that his enemies were not the pagan Roman Empire or those who misinterpreted the faith or questioned his authority as an apostle. No, his true foes were the corrupt spiritual powers who tempt people to sin.
His message to the Ephesians is that they must be prepared to resist temptation and spiritual assault, in whatever forms they take, by putting “on the whole armor of God.” Their struggle for faithfulness will be a battle in which they must cover themselves with truth, righteousness, “the gospel of peace,” and “the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.” They must put “on the helmet of salvation, and [carry] the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” He called his primarily Gentile Christian audience to live in stark contrast to the standards of their culture. Instead of serving the false gods of money, power, pleasure, and earthly glory, they were to offer themselves fully to the Lord. They had to gain as much spiritual strength as possible in order to respond faithfully to the great challenges they faced in serving Jesus Christ. Those challenges would be quite profound, for the Romans soon began imprisoning, torturing, and killing Christians for not worshiping the pagan gods whom they believed protected their empire.
The temptation must have been great both for Paul and for the other believers of that era to hate their persecutors. That would seem like a normal human reaction in the world as we know it. Christians, however, are called to something very different from living according to the standards of the world as we know it. In order to become more like God in holiness as partakers of the divine nature by grace, we must engage in constant combat against the temptation to think that our true enemies are persons or groups who wrong us or whom we do not like for whatever reason. Those who annoy or threaten us are not our true enemies, but fellow children of God who bear the divine image. Our true enemies are the spiritual forces of darkness that encourage us to hate those who harm us and to refuse to forgive them. If we want to know where those enemies are at work, we should look first to our own hearts before daring to diagnose anyone else.
In order to defeat these powerful enemies, we need to put “on the whole armor of God.” That means opening ourselves as fully as possible to the healing energies of our Lord through full participation in the sacramental and ascetical life of the Church. Prepared by prayer, fasting, and Confession, we should receive the Body and Blood of Christ frequently as the most powerful nourishment for the healing of our souls. The more that we live in communion with Christ each day as we reject temptation, the better prepared we will be to share in His life through this holy mystery for “the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.” The Nativity Fast calls us to daily prayer, fasting, and generosity to others in order to prepare ourselves to welcome the Savior born at Christmas. In other words, this is a season for putting “on the whole armor of God” as we battle against our own temptations to look for the fulfillment of our lives anywhere else than in the God-Man Who becomes one of us for our salvation.
That is precisely how St. Paul and countless other martyrs, throughout history and to this very day, have found the strength to turn the other cheek and love their oppressors as they followed in the way of the Savior Who said from the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Their victory comes not by defeating human beings in any conventional sense, but by conquering their own temptations to preserve their lives in this world by denying Christ and responding to their tormentors with anything short of His love.
Most of us, of course, cannot see how we could possibly live or die that way. We have become blinded by our own passions to the point that we often feel perfectly justified in hating, condemning, and refusing to forgive people for wronging us in much smaller ways. When that happens, we become blind to the identity of our true enemies: the demons who tempt us to live as those who do not share in the life of Christ. We also then become blind to our own spiritual state in preferring the weakness of Adam and Eve, who stripped themselves naked of the divine glory, to the strength found in wearing “the full armor of God.”
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus Christ restored the sight of a blind beggar identified as Bartimaeus in Mark 10: 46-52. This man persistently called out for the Lord’s mercy as He passed by, even though others told him to be quiet. Because of his bold and persistent faith, Christ restored his ability to see. When we catch a glimpse of our spiritual blindness and weakness, we must follow Bartimaeus’ example of focusing our attention on the Savior as we ask for His healing and strength. He persevered in calling out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” even when people told him to shut up. It is precisely when we are tempted to give up in despair that we must persist like the blind beggar with our daily prayers, our fasting, our almsgiving, and our conscientious participation in the full sacramental and ascetical life of the Church. That is how we will open ourselves to the healing presence of the Lord in our lives.
Instead of pointing a judgmental finger at anyone or making excuses of any kind for our inflamed passions, we must humbly look to Christ and put ourselves in the place of all those who have embraced His mercy for the healing of their souls. That is an essential practice for putting “on the whole armor of God” each day of our lives. If we are to do battle with the forces of darkness that have taken root in our souls, we must do so not with illusions of our own power or righteousness, but by uniting ourselves to the Savior as fully as possible as blind beggars in need of His healing.
As we prepare our hearts to welcome the Lord at His birth this Christmas, let us remember that He does not come to deliver us from other people with whom we are at odds. No, He is born to destroy our bondage to the fear of death that so easily inspires hatred and fear toward our neighbors and blinds us to our own corruption. He is born to make us radiant with the divine glory and participants in His life by grace. He is born to conquer our true enemies and to fulfill His gracious will for all who bear His image and likeness. Now is the time to prepare our hearts to receive Him.