21st Sunday after Pentecost: Put on the whole armor of God

You know the story of Esther during the Babylonian Exile. Wicked Haman plotted to get the King to kill all the Jews. Esther foiled his plan and instead the Jews were able to slay their enemies.

You know the story of Job. He was a righteous man whom Satan tormented with God’s permission to test and strengthen him. He remained faithful in extreme misery and loss. Eventually Job was rewarded by God with an even better condition than he had before.

The figures of Esther and Job invest our Sunday Mass with their presence. The Introit Antiphon is from Esther and the Offertory Antiphon is from Job. There is a message embedded in the chants: things can go sideways very fast and mortal peril can arise. The agents of Satan and even Satan himself is at work. We must persevere, for only God is our salvation. Only He can save us, but we, like Ester and especially Job, must do our part both to defend ourselves from the Enemy and then also go on the offensive with prayer: “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Context is important for our Epistle reading for Sunday. These readings are our task this year so I don’t stray too much into other texts. We are coming to the end of the liturgical year. In the first part of this sixth and final chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, the end of the “paranetic” section, the Apostle instructs the flock on the relations of parents and children (don’t provoke to anger and obey and then masters and servants (obedience is owed but good treatment is too). He picks up with our reading, describing the “armor of God” which has become something of a commonplace. Lastly, in the Letter, Paul makes his final salutations.

I can’t stand it. I have to stray a little. Bl. Ildefonso Schuster adds a note to our understanding of the forceful beauty of the Sunday Offertory Antiphon from Job 1:1.

Way back in the Gregorian Sacramentary the chant had also “antiphonic hemistichs”, repetitions of phrases which flowed dramatically in the singing. Over the years antiphons were shortened. Listeners, however, knew their Scripture better than we and could probably continue on their own what had been sung in the past, Job 7:7: “my eye will never again see good.” Bl. Ildefonso wrote:

Job, stretched upon the dung-hill, protests that he is innocent, and cries out that “his flesh is not of brass” to be able to support such suffering. The magnificent musical composition ends with a passionate cry for that happiness which is the supreme desire of every heart. Quoniam, quoniam, quoniam non revertetur oculus meus, ut videam bona, ut videam bona, ut videam bona, ut videam bona, ut videam bona, ut videam bona, ut videam bona, ut videam bona, ut videam bona.

I found one medieval manuscript of the musical chant, used once in the great Abbey of St. Michael in France. It is an early form of notation without staves, but you can tell through the interlinear marks that the melismatic line was extraordinary in its pathos. As the chant moves along with that repetition, that ut phrase more and more sounds like “would that I might see good things again”… and it punches through the hurt and loneliness and fear to… “finally I shall see good things.”

It can seem these days that we will never again see good things in the Church. Of course we faithful Catholics know that good things, and more than good – the best – things are ours in the Church, the Sacraments. We know where to look up the good things of Holy Church’s teachings on morals and the Faith even if (when) our shepherds lead us not to green pastures but rather the zoo, or maybe the abattoir. In these times our old catechisms and spiritual books, the writings of the Fathers and commentaries and biographies of the saints are like armor to put around ourselves and our loved ones and friends. The fiery darts of inanities or of outright error cannot get through to the well-catechized Catholic. Sometimes it feels to me as if the slow and steady dumbing down of the content of our liturgical worship (which is doctrine) and preaching and classes in seminaries, etc., was systematic, in view of these days now, when people at big gatherings talk about the future of the Church, blurp all manner of lunatic jibber jabber and are mechanically applauded.

Let’s see the Epistle reading in the Revised Standard Version:

[Brethren], be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For 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. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

I don’t think this pericope, this cutting from Scripture, occurs in the Novus Ordo Lectionary at all. Perhaps in those halcyon days peace signs, love beads and flower power, when the Lectionary was being cobbled up, they thought this sounded too militaristic? No idea. It nevertheless strikes me as odd, since it is both lyrical and important.

Without God’s continuing protection, we rapidly wind up as prey to the Enemy, as Esther found and as Job learned. Without his armor we are vulnerable to diabolical oppression.

The list of armor would have been a commonplace for Paul, who would have known quite well the book of Isaiah. We find armor pieces associated similarly in Isaiah: gird with truth (Is 11:5), breastplate of righteousness (Is 59:17), shod with the Gospel (v. Is 52:7), shield of Faith (Is 21:5), helm of salvation (Is 59:17), sword of the Word (Is 49:2). Moreover, the Book of Wisdom 5:17ff has an armor list: zeal for armor (v. 17), righteousness as breastplate and judgment for helmet (v. 18), holiness a shield (v. 19), anger for a sword (v. 20), etc.

Paul made it fairly easy to break down our section. In Ephesians 6:10–20 we have the image of armor. Not just any armor, but God’s armor. This is akin to putting on “the new man” like a garment at baptism. What is armor for? Defense, surely, but also offense. We are to be “strong in the Lord” (v. 10). You must be strong to wear armor and we are to put on not just a little bit of the armor, but “the whole armor of God” (v. 11). You can’t say in a serious way, “I will believe what the Church says!”, and then refuse to follow her moral teachings. So, what is the armor about? To “stand against the wiles of the devil” (v. 11). Our armor is not physical, because our battle is spiritual, “against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (v.12). The whole armor enables us to “withstand the evil day” and remain standing (v.13). Speaking of standing on our feet, we will be shod with the Gospel of Peace, as well as being girded with Truth and Righteousness (vv.14–15). The Word of God is listed as the one offensive weapon, used both to protect and to strike back against evil (Ephesians 6:17). Believers are to pray at all times, keep alert, and persevere (Ephesians 6:18). Continuing with our defensive armor, we take up on one arm “the shield of Faith” against the attacks of demons, and the helmet of salvation (v. 17). Finally, an offensive tool, and a strong offense is a good defense, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (v. 17). Paul wraps up the Letter (not part of the reading) urging his listeners – letters were read aloud in the ancient world – to persevere in prayer and supplication, therefore asking God for aid for their brethren and to pray for Paul himself, who is “in chains” that he may declare boldly the “mystery of the Gospel” (vv. 19-20). Similar imagery is in Romans 13:12: “the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light”.

Let’s see a couple of the phrases.

First, we have that first imperative: “be strong.” But this is not strength that we will ourselves. The Greek is a passive, endynamousthe, “be strengthened.” How often are men called to be strong in salvation history. Joshua (1:6). David (1 Sam 30:06). God is our strength, but the strength is also genuinely ours.

Next, we start getting to the armor and the word is panoplia “full armor.” We get panoply from this.

There’s more than meets the eye in that phrase, “For we are not contending against flesh and blood.” The Greek has “our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” The word here is pále which is “a wrestling contest.” This is the only place it appears in the New Testament. In ancient times wrestling was common. The victor held his opponent down with his hand on his neck. Paul mentions “fiery darts,” but the image here implies close quarters fighting, the most demanding, most intimate of all.

The “world rulers of this present darkness,” a great Greek word κοσμοκρáτοραςkosmokrátoras. Not everything in this world is “dark,” in fact having created Creation starting with light and then calling it good, we can distinguish that Paul means those things which are truly in the grip of the Enemy, persons, places, things. The Enemy makes use of agents, mundi rectores tenebrarum harum. The “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” are demons, contrasted with wicked agents.

Paul already in ch. 4 enumerates ways that Satan tries to get to us, such as uncontrolled anger (v. 26), falsehood (v. 25), stealing (v. 28), unclean talk (v. 29), the “old life” (v. 22).

St. John Chrysostom preached on our Epistle:

[Paul] shows us that this conflict with the evil spirits we must needs have: for the gospel is “the gospel of peace”; this war which we have against them, puts an end to another war, that, namely, which is between us and God; if we are at war with the devil, we are at peace with God. Fear not therefore, beloved; it is a “gospel, “that is, a word of good news; already is the victory won.

The idea of “already but not yet” flows through much of our readings from Scripture and the texts of Holy Mass. There is a tension between what has been accomplished already and what will someday be “all in all.” Here is this very letter we find that tension in a human way in Paul himself. Surely Paul is describing himself with his armament against the powers that be. Paul is in chains waiting to be judged by the likes of Nero and Seneca. He will be released for a time, but for now he a prisoner. He is an imprisoned warrior. He is a warrior captive. So, he writes of the “mystery” when he asks for prayers, so he can declare, that is speak out boldly.

This passage summarizes what Paul was trying to convey to the Ephesians. One of the principal points is that Christ has already won His victory of the powers of darkness (1:21) but they still are operative in those who don’t obey Him. (2:2 and 4:27). We do not fear these powers but we are on guard against them in their human agents and in their demonic selves.

You have to choose your side. You can’t do it alone. You need what Christ gives you through the Church. You may feel like you are in “chains” in a sense at the hands of your pastors. Speak out. Be bold.

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