Are you prepared for winter assaults?
New Year’s arrived with a winter storm and Wisconsinites scrambled to once again learn the value of preparing for nature’s brutality. No one here would dare go outside without boots, a jacket and snow gear to start the car or clear the sidewalk.
In the same way, Christians should not venture out without preparation to face the challenges of daily life and the assaults of the evil in our world that we would be foolish to deny. Pope Francis has been reminding us of this in many homilies and Angelus messages.
For example, on June 12, 2013, he said, “It is enough to open a newspaper and we see that around us there is the presence of evil, the devil is at work.” And again, on Oct. 30, 2014, he said that “in this generation, like so many others, people have been led to believe that the devil is a myth, a figure, an idea, the idea of evil. But the devil exists and we must fight against him.”
So how do we fight evil and keep our faith life healthy and strong?
First come prayer and the sacraments. And both fall under what St. Paul colorfully called, in his letter to Ephesians: “the spiritual armor of God.”
We all know that Paul often linked physical actions to practicing the faith: “persevere in running the race” (Heb 12:1); “running the good race”; and “fighting the good fight” (2Tim 4:7).
But the spiritual armor of God is found in Ephesians 6:10-17. It is an image Paul used when he advised us to “draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power” (6:10).
Paul listed six pieces of armor that would have been familiar to Jews of his day, especially from the gear of both the Romans and of Jewish Temple guards. Paul also took his idea of armor from Isaiah’s reference to “the armor the Lord,” which the prophet had said God used when he saw the evils in the world of the Old Testament: “(J)ustice as his breastplate, victory as a helmet on his head; he clothed himself with garments of vengeance, wrapped himself in a mantle of zeal” (Is 59:17). (In other areas, Isaiah used more armor references that parallel Paul’s.)
Paul’s list includes: truth as a belt, boots made from the Gospel of peace, righteousness as a breastplate, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit.
Isaiah’s audience and Paul’s readers understood what these articles of warfare meant. Thankfully, we don’t have that same everyday experience.
However, we do know about winter gear. And we know we need it. Following Paul’s advice, we also know that we need spiritual gear. As Pope Francis said in 2014: “You cannot be Christians without working continuously at being righteous. You can’t.”
So as we work to be righteous, we gear up with:
The belt of truth When we work outside in winter, we need snow pants, or at least heavy jeans with deep, zippered pockets to hold gloves and earmuffs, a key to the snow blower and an ice scraper for the windshield. A 17th century Capuchin priest, Fr. Henri de Picquigny, wrote about this section of Ephesians extensively. He called the belt of truth “a firm and resolute adherence to the one true Catholic and apostolic faith.” The belt of truth holds us firmly, just as our belted, pocketed pants hold us firm against winter winds.
The boots shod in the Gospel of peace Boots protect our feet from the cold and snow. Fr. Henri put it this way: “One who walks barefoot over rough places must proceed with timidity and caution; but if wellshod or booted, he will move with boldness and freedom.” Imagine how boldly you would walk if you went outside barefoot in the winter. The Gospel protects us from fear.
The breastplate of righteousness A “breastplate” can also mean a coat of armor, like a shirt constructed of chain mail. Who were some of the people named as armed with “righteous” in the Bible? Noah (who was saved from the flood), Abraham (our father in faith) and Joseph (the husband of Mary.) What did they all share? A strong, unyielding faith against all adversity. A breastplate — like a parka — protects the vital organs, including the heart. Who hasn’t worn a heavy jacket or parka in winter? With our heart wrapped safely with faith in God, we find protection against the assaults of evil and buffered against the troubles of the world.
A shield of faith We often wear face masks to keep out the cold and goggles when skiing. Some snow blowers have windshields to block the blow-back of ice and sleet and the breath-taking billows of snow. Pope Francis in 2014 spoke of the “shield of faith,” saying it “protects us, but also gives us life.” He added that, with this shield, we can “quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.”
A helmet of salvation Think of the fur-lined caps with ear flaps that protect us from frostbite. Fr. Henri chose this reference in Ephesians to advise us to “take for a helmet, the assured hope of everlasting salvation.” It might help to note here that, when a priest vests for Mass, he may put an amice, a piece of cloth that rings his shoulders and neck, under his alb. If he does, he may say this prayer when putting it on: “Lord, set the helmet of salvation on my head to fend off all the assaults of the devil.”
The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God Most of us don’t carry swords, but we do carry ice picks and snow shovels to chip away the slippery spots and clear our paths. Clear paths in our faith life allow us to spread the Gospel. Perhaps when we spread salt on icy drives, we can think of it like the sower spreading the seeds (Mt 14; Mk 4 and Lk 8).
So there they are, the pieces of spiritual armor. Like winter warriors armed for blizzards and wind chill warnings, we can arm our faith life with belief in Christ’s Gospel, strengthened by prayer and the sacraments.
As Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix, Ariz., said about this passage from Ephesians in a 2018 Lenten message: “The most effective armor against the lure of the devil’s influence is an intense life of grace that is generously offered through the sacramental life of the church. In the sacraments, Jesus himself fights with us and for us.”
Sources: thedivinelamp.wordpress.com; biblestudyforcatholics.com; aleteia.org; worldcatholicreport.com; catholicsun.org; Vatican Insider at lastampa.il and Catholic News Service at catholicnews.com