by Fr. Johann Evangelist Zollner, 1883
On several Sundays during the year the Church gives us selections from the epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians; she does so again today, for the last time in the Ecclesiastical Year. In the second part of his epistle, the Apostle gave his converts at Ephesus instructions as to how they were to lead a pious life; he then exhorted married people, parents and children, servants and masters, to fulfil their duties conscientiously. At the conclusion of it he addresses all the Ephesians and exhorts them courageously to fight against the enemies of their salvation, and to use in this struggle weapons that would ensure victory. The Apostle treats in this epistle
I. Of the enemies against whom we must struggle;
II. Of the weapons which we must use in the struggle against them.
1. Brethren, be strengthened in the Lord and in the might of His power. The enemies of our salvation are strong; in order to be able to battle against them, we also must be strong. But if left to ourselves and to our own strength, we are weak, so weak that we cannot even think a good, salutary thought.–II. Cor. 3: 5. Yet, in the Lord and in the might of his power, i. e., when God supports us by His grace, we become strong, so strong that, full of confidence, we can say with the Apostle: “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.”–Phil. 4: 13. St. Francis of Sales suffered great temptations for a long time. He writes with regard to them: “I am attacked so violently that it seems to me as if all power of resistance were wanting to me, and that I should fall if an opportunity offered itself. But the weaker I feel, the more my confidence in God grows; for I am confident that God, even in the presence of the objects of a sinful desire, would impart to me so great strength that I could destroy my enemies as young lambs.” In spite of all our weakness, we need not fear the struggle with our enemies, for God assists us and strengthens us so that we can overcome every temptation, even the strongest. “If God be for us, who is against us?” Rom. 8: 31.
2. Put you on the armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil. The Apostle compares Christians to soldiers who go to war, amply provided with the necessary arms. The enemy with whom they must struggle is the devil, the author of all evil, the father of lies, the seducer from the beginning of the world, who goes about, like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.–1 Pet. 5: 8. This arch-enemy of our salvation is not only strong, but also full of cunning; he comes when he is least expected and attacks the unguarded senses, causing the most violent temptations; he does not attack openly, in front, but artfully, sideways, and therefore does not represent the sins to which he wishes to seduce us in their real form, but under the appearance of an indifferent thing, or even a virtue. Thus he calls pride, noble self esteem; avarice, wise economy; impurity, human weakness or natural pleasure; injustices and impositions, good financiering. He studies the weakness of every one, and therefore tempts each man to that sin to which he is most inclined.
3. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers ; against the rulers of the world of this darkness; against the spirits of wickedness in high places. In these words the Apostle gives the reason why we must be well armed, for we are obliged to withstand supernatural, not natural powers; and in this struggle it is a question not only of our body and our life, but of our soul and our salvation. By flesh and blood we are to understand men. These also cause us many hard struggles and endanger our salvation by their bad example and scandals, their flatteries and threats, their artifices and violence; far more severe, however, are the struggles, and far greater the danger to our salvation, prepared for us by the evil spirits, because they far surpass men in power, cunning and malice. When the Apostle speaks of principalities and powers, he intimates that there is a hierarchy among evil spirits as well as among good spirits, for, as St. Jerome observes, after the fall they retained the same distinctions of rank as in heaven. The evil spirits, therefore, differ from one another in power and influence; some command, others obey. The Apostle calls them rulers of the world of this darkness. They rule the world, not absolutely, but only so far as God permits them; therefore, without the permission of God, they can injure no one in person or property; as the history of Job teaches us, their power goes only so far as God wills and permits. Concerning salvation, they can injure no one against his will; they resemble, as St. Augustine says, a chained dog that can bark, but can bite only those who go near him. Hence the Scripture says: “Resist the devil and he will fly from you.”–James 4: 7. The addition, of this darkness, means that the evil spirits have power over those men only who lie buried in the darkness of unbelief, error and sin.
Lastly, the Apostle designates the evil spirits as spirits of wickedness in high places. According to the unanimous doctrine of the Fathers of the Church and theologians, all evil spirits are not imprisoned in hell, but can leave it from time to time and visit the earth, in order there to tempt men and do mischief so far as God permits them. I must, however, remark, that wherever they may be, they carry hell, as it were, with them and suffer its torments, and that on the Day of Judgment they will be cast into it for ever. As St. Jerome remarks, it is the unanimous doctrine of the Fathers, that the air it is full of evil spirits who inflict various evils on men. In order to protect the faithful from their injuries, the Church applies sacramentals, especially exorcisms. Make use of those means of the Church, such as the sign of the cross, the invocation of the name of Jesus, and holy water, with devotion and confidence, in order to experience their salutary effects against the power of darkness.
4. Therefore, take unto you the armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day and to stand in all things perfect. As the Apostle says, we have so many and such powerful enemies, that we must take unto ourselves the armor of God, that is, we must have in readiness the necessary means for overcoming all temptations and removing all that is dangerous to salvation, for only in this way shall we be able to resist in the evil day, that is, to stand immovable in the time of temptation, and to persevere in the grace of God. This is the lot of all; we must fight against the enemies of our salvation so long as we live; for “the life of man upon earth is a warfare.” Job 7: 1. We must labor in order to be admitted into heaven, for “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence; and the violent bear it away” (Matt. 1 1 : 12); we must fight and conquer, for no one is crowned unless he has legitimately gained the victory.
But what are the arms that we must use in the combat, in order to win the victory?
The Apostle mentions these arms by bringing the complete armor of a Roman soldier before our eyes. A Roman soldier had a helmet on his head, a sword in his right hand, a shield on his left arm, and a coat of mail on his breast, around the loins a broad belt bound with thin iron, and on his feet short, boots provided with sharp points.
1. Stand, therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of justice.
(a.) The enemies of our soul endeavor to blind and seduce us by various misrepresentations and lies, as formerly the infernal serpent seduced Eve. They say this or that is not a sin, at least not a mortal sin; that we shall become perfectly happy by committing it; that God is infinitely merciful and indulgent with the weakness of men. We must protect ourselves against these lying suggestions of the devil with the girdle of truth; to his persuasions we must oppose the truths of our holy faith, and reply to him: “What you suggest to me is untrue; for my infallible faith tells me the very opposite, and to that faith I will cling.” If Eve had girded herself about with truth, the devil could not have persuaded her to sin; and if we gird ourselves about with truth in every temptation, we shall be safe against every fall.
(b.) We must have on the breastplate of justice. Justice means here the perfect fulfilment of the divine law, true holiness; the breastplate of justice, therefore, is, as St. Chrysostom observes, a life adorned with every virtue. As the breastplate defends the breast of the soldier against the missiles of the enemy, so justice is a protection against the assaults of Satan. When Satan tempts the just man to pride, he is overcome by humility; when he tempts him to impurity, he is overcome by chastity; when he tempts him to anger and revenge, he is overcome by meekness; in short, when he tempts him to any sin, he is invariably over come by the virtue opposed to that sin. The just man who loves God with his whole heart, and hates and detests sin as the greatest evil, employs the means necessary for the overcoming of the temptation, and for this reason he cannot be overcome by the enemies of his salvation.
(c.) And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace. The Roman soldiers wore shoes which covered the feet and ankles, and enabled them to walk safely on all kinds of roads, and prevented injury by bushes and thorns. With such shoes we also must be provided; they consist in a true zeal for virtue, in a continual aspiration to perfection. This zeal is necessary, because walking in the path of virtue has many difficulties in its train. He who falls away from his first fervor and becomes tepid, will soon grow weary in well-doing. The Apostle says that our feet must be shod, that is, we must have great zeal for the gospel of peace; and he thereby indicates that walking in the way of virtue leads us to peace with God. For if we fervently serve God, we already here below enjoy the peace of a good conscience, and the everlasting peace of the children of God awaits us in the next world. When the worldling does so much for the acquisition of temporal comforts and conveniences, which are vain and fleeting, why should we not readily and willingly make any and every sacrifice in order to acquire for ourselves the unspeakable blessing of heavenly peace?
2. In all things taking the shield of faith wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one. The Apostle calls faith a shield, for as a shield protects the soldier against the darts, so faith protects the Christian against the sins into which in moments of temptation he is liable to fall. For faith tells us how miserable we make ourselves when we yield to temptation and sin that we forfeit the love and grace of God, all acquired merit, as well as heaven, and expose ourselves to the danger of everlasting perdition; again, faith tells us what a great reward awaits us if we overcome the temptation and remain faithful to God that we acquire the love and approbation of God, and eternal salvation. Who that ponders well on these truths of the faith, could consent to a temptation, and fall into sin? The fiery darts of the most wicked one are especially the temptations to impurity, with which the devil assaults people; also in general all temptations that frequently assail them with great vehemence and allure them to sin. Against these the shield of faith protects us, for its serious truths, when we meditate upon them, place us in a holy frame of mind, inspire us with a detestation of all evil, and urge us to have recourse to God by fervent prayer, whereby we gain strength sufficient to come forth victorious from the most severe struggles.
3. And take unto you the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
(a.) By helmet of salvation we are to understand the hope of eternal salvation. For as the helmet protects the head against all the blows of the enemy, so the hope of eternal salvation protects us against all the attacks of Satan. Witnesses, the holy martyrs. They were promised honors and dignities, riches and pleasures of every description, if they would renounce their faith, but they resisted the temptation and remembered the words of Christ: “What doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?–Matt. 16: 26. They were threatened with the confiscation of their property, with prison and death, and these threats were executed with unheard-of cruelty; but they remained faithful to Jesus and to the holy faith, and said with the Apostle: “That which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation, worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory.”–II. Cor. 4: 17. It was also in the hope of heaven that so many Christians of both sexes renounced the world, with all its pleasures and enjoyments, and passed their whole lives in seclusion, in mortification, and in works of Christian charity; they said with St. Paul: “I count all things to be but loss, for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ.”–Phil. 3: 8. In all your temptations think of heaven and its unspeakable joys; then it will become plain to you how vain and fleeting is what the world and Satan offer, and so you will turn away from them with contempt and disgust.
(b.) The sword of the Spirit is the word of God. The Apostle calls the word of God a sword, which is one of the most effectual weapons to put the evil spirit to flight. But the word of God comprises edifying discourses and hymns, ejaculatory prayers, sermons, catechetical instructions, wholesome admonitions, the Sacred Scriptures, spiritual books, and the lives of the saints. Christ resisted and overcame the devil with the word of God. –Matt. 4: 3-10.
You now know the weapons with which you must fight against Satan. Make use of them, and struggle with courage and determination, with bravery and perseverance. Short is the time of warfare, for it extends itself only over our fleeting earthly life, but the fruits of the victory will endure when time is no more. Blessed are we, if in the days of our earthly life we struggle manfully with the enemies of our salvation and conquer; at the close of our earthly career we can confidently look forward to eternity, and say with the Apostle: “I have fought a good fight; I have finished my course; I have kept the faith. As to the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice, which the Lord, the just judge, will render to me in that day.”–II. Tim. 4: 7, 8. Amen.