In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians today we are emboldened to “Put on the whole armour of God, that we (sic: you) may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” (Ephesians 6:11)
As the Nativity Fast continues we remember that at this time we are to prepare ourselves with as much care and diligence as in the fast of Great Lent to receive Christ newly born. St. Paul’s teaching concerning spiritual warfare in today’s Apostle reading helps us as usual to achieve that goal. I want to choose one element in his teaching today and explore what that means practically. It is his reference to wrestling, doing battle spiritually against evil and that battle always starts within ourselves. If we neglect this place of combat nothing that we do for God and his kingdom as a Christian will be effective. So how does this work out?
There is a city in the centre of every living person and that is the heart. There is only one ruler possible in this city. Pray for yourself that it may be Christ. At baptism the Holy Spirit becomes the life of a Christian as Christ takes his rightful place in the heart of the believer. However, the Christian also has a vital role to play in extending God’s rule and sovereignty into every nook and cranny of his or her life. This will involve the repulsion of all the enemies of God as they seek to storm the citadel of the heart. This is of the essence of spiritual warfare ... a contest and an arena in which every Christian must engage with God’s strength and grace until God is “all in all.”
God provides ample resources of grace by the operation of his Spirit within our hearts so that we might prove victorious in this battle. When we fall he raises us up again through repentance with forgiveness. When we lack wisdom in fighting he provides us with godly counsel, often through the guidance of a spiritual father or mother. When we flag in energy or zeal he calls to our mind the goal of the Kingdom and the dangers of falling short through lethargy or despair. When we grow angry or frustrated through excess he chastens us lovingly by showing us our weakness. He then opens again the door to His compassion and strength, which is our humility. Also, as an abiding help in the Tradition of the Church he provides three great weapons, prayer, watchfulness and fasting.
“Watch and pray!” Christ commanded his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:38). Both these injunctions go together as surely as do fasting and prayer. It is watchful prayer that keeps the heart steadfast and safe against the encroachment of all its enemies.
All the ascetic fathers stress the importance of guarding the heart in watchful prayer. The city’s walls are not safe unless they watched over and guarded. Practically this means an alert and continuous prayerfulness, (even when not praying mentally in the obvious sense), so that the mind may easily detects any disturbance of the soul. These disturbances may arise either from the full frontal assault of a temptation or the more subtle machinations of the Evil One. Even good and holy inclinations may mask a corrupt intention or a self-seeking mentality. Such watchfulness must not, however, lead to introspection, a certain obsession with one’s inner state. Always the heart must look outward and upward toward the hills “from whence cometh my help” (Psalm 121:1). So, we must always “watch and pray.”
On a number of occasions our Lord linked fasting and prayer, notably when the disciples’ ministry had proved fruitless by prayer alone (Mark 9:29). Fasting clearly has an effect on our prayer. We may surmise that prayer is much more effective when the stomach is not overfull, but there is a more to fasting than praying “lite.” Fasting is a physical discipline that has a corresponding mental component, self restraint. The vessel that prays must pray not only with right intention but also with clean hands. Such power in prayer comes from a disciplined heart, a heart that is not full of itself but full of God. As St. James reminds us… “the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” (James 5:16) Fasting curbs our self will. It strengthens our will to serve God the Word who nourishes us more deeply than bread alone.
Thus girded with spiritual armour for our spiritual combat, we sometimes wonder why God allows us to suffer afflictions, trials, temptations and the seeming intractability of our own nature. Such questions have often been in the minds of believers in all ages.
In the New Testament we have a direct answer to the question given to us by St. Peter in his First Letter which is essentially teaching given to those preparing for baptism. He reminds the candidates: ” ... you may have to suffer various trials so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)
So then, there we have it. We necessarily engage in spiritual warfare as a test and strengthening of our faith with the goal of salvation and the glorification of God. Nothing could be more important than this, so let us gird ourselves with God’s strength in this Nativity Fast that when we arrive at the Eve of Christ’s birth it will be in our own hearts that He is born anew.