Melkite Greek Catholic Church
ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISTS HAVE MADE the term jihad (struggle) a militant concept in our contemporary world. Their idea of struggling is contending to submit the world to God (as they understand Him). The idea of a spiritual struggle long predates Islam, however. In the Epistle to the Ephesians St. Paul uses very martial terms to describe the struggle a Christian should expect to face. Fundamentalist warfare – whether Islamic, Leninist, Maoist, Crusader or any other ideology – seeks to change the face of the world usually with violence. Christians seek to “fight the good fight” (2 Timothy 4:7), to be sure, but it has nothing to do with the external conquests and exploits. The Scriptural idea of spiritual warfare refers to the inner struggles of the Christian seeking to make his or her own the newness of life (cf. Romans 6:4), as realized in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

A New Creation

A number of Church Fathers over the centuries urged Christians to “become what you are” or to “be what you have become.” In baptism, they affirm, we have been made anew. We are a “new creation” as St. Paul insists (2 Corinthians 5:17), brought through baptism to share in the new life of sharing in the divine nature. The imagery of baptism repeatedly illustrates this: we die and are raised to life, we are reborn in the womb of the Holy Spirit, we strip off the old man and are clothed anew in Christ. We are victorious in Christ, but we are still struggling in a spiritual warfare, seeking the defeat in our own lives of the enemy whom Christ has conquered. Once more St. Paul helps us understand the terms of our struggle. “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above not on things of the earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). “Things of the earth” in this passage has been explained as anything that distracts our minds or steals our hearts from the communion with God of which we are possible. The spiritual life aims to help us reintegrate these dimensions of our makeup in an order that reflects the new creation. Our fractured nature does not easily adapt to this new reality. While our spirit may be united to Christ through this mystery, our soul and body find it much easier to be attached to the earth. Physically and psychically we are “of the earth.” Our bodies are drawn to bodily pleasure and convenience. Our minds and wills are drawn to satisfying our ego. The spiritual warfare in which we are to engage is the attempt to liberate these aspects of our nature from the world and live them in a way that is harmonious with our baptismal union with Christ.

Engaging in This Unseen Warfare

St Paul uses two images to describe the spiritual warfare. One is military – the “armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11); the other is athletic. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” he writes, “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age…” (v. 12). The aim of wrestling is to keep standing against the assaults of the foe. Wrestlers use different offensive and defensive maneuvers in their combat. What “maneuvers” does the Christian athlete have to assist in the struggle? An important offensive move in this struggle is fasting, simply because the temptation to self-absorption is one of the Enemy’s strongest holds deployed against us. We do not fast because certain foods are bad. There is nothing wrong with eating meat or dairy products. Fasting from them at regular intervals is a kind of tool to help liberate our minds and hearts from so “needing” these things that all our energies may be focused on meeting these false needs. Each of us knows other things besides food that we feel are indispensable in our life: comfort, entertainment, fashions. A Christian athlete may find the desire to please God be defeated by the desire to accumulate (money, titles, books, jewelry). This is why it is helpful to stand back from these things from time to time, to ask if I really need what I want, or to reflect on what I expect to get out of this outfit or show or trip. I may surprise myself to find that I can survive quite nicely without what I once thought I needed. As the Lord says, we only “need” God – if we focus on Him the rest will be given us (cf. Matthew 6:33). Another offensive weapon in the spiritual warfare is almsgiving. A person may fast or live simply and find a joy in the money saved, whether it be change in a jar or interest on an IRA. Just as no food is forbidden, neither is wealth. The problem many be in what we do with it. The temptation we need to fight here is that of finding security in possessions. Training ourselves to give things away effectively counters this temptation. There are always groups and individuals seeking our help. Churches may have particular charities they encourage members to support. There are also hands-on ways of sharing what we have. Every community has its elderly struggling to get by, sometimes sacrificing food to afford medication. In some places people are encouraged to set aside a portion from their family meal for the church freezer, to be given to such people whose needs may not be obvious, but are real nonetheless.

When We Are Tempted

One of the more popular spiritual books in the last few hundred years is called The Unseen Warfare. Originally written in the 16th century by a Roman Catholic priest, Lorenzo Scupoli, it was translated and adapted extensively in the 18th century by the Greek saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and then in the 19th century by the Russian ascetic, St. Theophan the Recluse. The book details how people may find themselves in this warfare at different times in their lives. It is available in English in all these versions. These writers note that when we are tempted to any kind of self-indulgent behavior, a certain dynamic is at work. We need to master the defensive maneuvers required to combat these assaults. In the most common description on this dynamic, temptations begin with:
A Suggestion –
A thought pops into our mind to buy this, watch that, or respond angrily to someone. In the words of St Theophane the Recluse, "The enemy has a law––not to begin suddenly with a passion but with a thought, and to repeat the thought often." We can dismiss it as an idle thought and move on. Or we can hold on to the thought and
Consider It –
Should I or shouldn’t I? What happens if I do this or not? The more we consider a temptation, the more we are likely to agree to it. We can still say “no” but it’s getting harder.
Consent to It –
This is where I become accountable for that thought. This is what the Lord calls sinning in one’s heart (cf. Matthew 5:28).
Become Captive to It –
I decide that this action is acceptable. I do it and justify it in my mind.
Become Addicted to It –
I do it repeatedly without questioning it because “that’s the way I am.” The destructive passion has taken control of my life.
In the first two phases I am still in the contest; in the third I am down on the mat. In the fourth and fifth phases the contest is over.
THE MINISTRY OF THE LORD JESUS BEGINS with instances of physical healing. The Gospels present this as fulfilling a well-attested messianic prophecy. In Luke 4:16 and following we read how Jesus read such a prophecy from Isaiah in the synagogue service at Nazareth. He then sat down, we are told, and said “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21). Later, when John the Baptist sent people to ask Jesus if He was the Messiah, the Lord told them to inform John of what they had seen: the healings which were an expected sign of the messianic age (see Matthew 7:19-23). He was indicating that these miracles illustrated that He was in fact the Messiah. The physical healings foretold by the prophets would be accomplished by Christ, but they would also be exceeded by Him in ways the prophets could not imagine. The healings performed by Christ on the bodies of the blind, the lame, and the deaf were temporal, destined to disappear with those same bodies in death. But Christ’s healings, besides pointing back to the prophets, also pointed ahead. He who was the physician of bodies would also heal the souls of those who believed in Him: healings that would last unto eternity. The New Testament portrays baptism as the Church’s “healing moment” for believers in Christ. In the first years of the Church, and for several centuries afterwards, baptism was chiefly administered to adults who were ready to commit their lives to Christ. Their baptism by immersion was a sign of union with the death of Christ, His defeat of sin and death; their rising from the water a sign of their union with Him in His resurrection unto eternal life. In their baptism they experienced Christ raising them from the dead. St Paul tells his Gentile converts at Colossae: “…you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses” (Colossians 2:13).

Christ Heals Today

The consequence of being healed of sin and death, Paul goes on to say, is that you live like someone dead to the world and to sin. Baptism brings about the death of the “old man,” who is confined, as it were, to the world. The “new man,” united to Christ in baptism is given the opportunity to transcend the confines of the world and to live in Christ, both now and in eternity. We are healed at baptism when our life as an “old man” ends; we are resurrected as a “new man,” alive with Christ in us. We have been changed through baptism in our spirit, the deepest part of our being. Over the years our inheritance as children of the earth, our environment and the direct actions of others have caused our spirit to be so covered over that we are out of touch with the new man in us. It is our lifelong task to “be what we have become,” in the words of St Gregory of Sinai: people who live from our renewed spirit instead of from the spirit of the world. This refocusing of our lives on being a “new man,” alive in Christ is the early Church’s understanding of repentance. It is the continual striving to center our lives on the unseen reality of Christ in us rather than on the visible but transitory and therefore unreal attractions of this world. Doing this we are renewed in the image of Christ, whom we have put on and who is Himself the image of the unseen Father. St Paul speaks frequently of the consequences of being a new man in Christ: we must strive to live like one. Put to death, he writes, “whatever in you is earthly” (Colossians 3:5): both actions (fornication, anger, blasphemy, etc.) and inner passions (such as evil desire and covetousness). Since we have put off the old man and put on the new in baptism, our daily life is to reflect in practice what we already are in spirit. We have been healed of sin and death: we must live in the light of that healing. A person who is healed from sin and death has died to the world. In this the Christian is “hidden with Christ in God” (v. 3). While this language was later adopted by monastics to describe their particular commitment to living for Christ, it was first applied to all the baptized. In the New Testament baptism, not monastic profession, is the believer’s death and resurrection in Christ. It is a believer’s re-creation “according to the image of Him who created him” (v. 10): the One who lives and will come again in glory (v. 4).

The Walls of Separation

Elsewhere we are told that one example of the healing brought about by Christ’s death and resurrection is that the dividing wall of separation, which had set the Jews as God’s People apart from the Gentiles (see Ephesians 2:13-14), has been demolished. Now all who are united to Christ through baptism are one in and with Him, whatever their background. And so the great sign put forth here of living the new life in Christ is the way we accept everyone on the basis of their baptism, not because they are of this nationality or social status, but because “Christ is all in all” (v. 11) Christians have become increasingly aware of the walls separating peoples in the name of God. The walls constructed between Catholics of various Churches or ethnic origins have largely been dismantled. In the early twentieth century Christians began looking at other Christians, not as enemies to be defeated but as brethren to be embraced and the ecumenical movement was born. Some of these contacts – such as between Catholics, both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox or the Church of the East – have born fruit. Dialogues with Protestants, which at first seemed more productive, have been largely derailed over issues of theological and moral relativism. And while there are still Christians who avoid any contacts with members of other Churches or communities, others have come to value what possibilities do exist for common witness, especially in secular or anti-Christian environments. While not based on any common faith in Christ, dialogues have developed with non-Christians as well. Encounters between Christians and Jews have been more cautious and easily stalled over questions of anti-Semitism and support for Israel. Interaction between Christians and Muslims has been overshadowed to a great degree by the anti-Christian activities of certain Islamic fundamentalists who see Western political intervention in the affairs of their countries as signs of Christian imperialism. Yet even here, people of good will can chip away at some walls of separation. In the wake of the New Year’s Day bombing at a Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria, prominent Muslims, including arts and entertainment figures and the two sons of President Husni Mubarak, attended Coptic Christmas services. Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to the image of a cross within a crescent, symbolizing “One Egypt for All”. Around the city, banners went up calling for unity, depicting mosques and churches, crosses and crescents, together as one. Through repentance, then, we continue to be healed today. When we put to death the old man in us we come to cherish the new life we have been given and to see in others that, known or unknown to them Christ is in them as their Source and final end.

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