Ephesians 6:10-17; Luke 13:10-17
There are times when we do as little possible in order to meet a requirement that is not very important to us. There are other times when we do our very best because it really matters. Some requirements can be checked off easily with little effort and do not change us in any significant way. Those that require dedication from the depths of our souls, however, will transform us profoundly.
St. Paul, who suffered and struggled so much in his apostolic ministry, knew that faithfulness to Jesus Christ requires complete and life-changing commitment. That is why he instructed the Ephesians to “Put on the whole armor of God” so that they would be able to resist their many temptations. The challenge was not to fight against human beings, but against the spiritual forces of evil that so easily corrupt even the best intentions of people in the world as we know it. If we want to deflect “the flaming darts of the evil one,” we need the shield of faith, as well as “the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” That is how we ground ourselves in God’s truth, righteousness, and peace so that we will be able to resist the corrupting power of evil in our souls.
To view the Christian life as a battle for which we need the full armor of God is very different from thinking that religion is about emotion, politics, or simply being a decent person. The point is not to make ourselves feel a certain way, to gain worldly power, or even to become moral. Instead, our faith calls us to participate personally in the healing of the human person that Jesus Christ was born to bring to the world. As we await the coming fulfillment of God’s Kingdom, answering that call requires a difficult and constant struggle. Even though Christ has conquered death in His glorious resurrection on the third day, none of us has yet fully embraced His victory over the corrosive effects of sin. Regardless of whether our temptations are obvious or subtle, we must all engage in a struggle against the paralyzing forces of evil in our own souls. This is not a matter of going through the motions to meet a minimal standard, but a calling to invest ourselves fully in an ongoing battle through which we hope, by God’s grace, to be transformed in holiness as partakers of the divine nature.
The woman whom Jesus Christ healed in today’s gospel lesson certainly was transformed. She suffered from a kind of paralysis because she had not been able to stand up straight for eighteen years. She was stooped over and had probably lost all hope of ever being healed. The Lord saw her in that condition in the synagogue and restored her to health, saying “Woman, you are loosed.” Since it was the Sabbath day on which no work was to be done, the leader of the synagogue criticized Christ for breaking the Old Testament law. He responded that people care for their animals on the Sabbath, so how could it possibly be wrong to heal “this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen years”? That response silenced His critic.
There is no indication that the woman asked the Lord to heal her; instead, He took the initiative when He saw her that day in the synagogue. He took the initiative in extending His merciful love toward her in a way that was not minimalistic or perfunctory. His healing transformed and empowered her to live as a healthy human being in a way that she had not been able to experience by her own strength. In the very Jewish context of a healing on the Sabbath in a synagogue, the Messiah described her as “a daughter of Abraham,” a rightful heir of the blessings promised to Abraham and his descendants.
Yesterday the Church celebrated the conception of the Theotokos by St. Anna. She had been stooped over by her inability to conceive a child, which was an especially deep wound for daughters of Abraham through whom God’s promises of blessing were to be fulfilled from generation to generation. But the Lord heard Joachim and Anna’s prayers and gave this elderly, faithful couple a daughter through whom the Savior would be born. By loosing Anna from barrenness, God blessed her in a way that ultimately extended the promises to Abraham to the entire world. For now all who have faith in Christ are rightful heirs to their fulfillment.
In these weeks of the Nativity Fast, we prepare to celebrate the loosing of all people, and of the entire creation, from being stooped over and corrupted by the power sin. Left to our own abilities, we will remain bound to our infirmities of body, soul, and spirit. We will be unable to straighten ourselves up, much less to conquer death. We will be unable to heal our own distorted natures. The glorious good news of this season is that the Son of God has made our healing possible by becoming one of us, uniting humanity and divinity in His own Person. Because of the Incarnation of the God-Man, we are all set free to become spiritually fruitful by the power of His grace. We are all loosed from our barrenness.
If we have any spiritual insight at all, we will see that embracing that healing is no small or easy undertaking. Too often, we become like the ruler of the synagogue who hypocritically interpreted the rules in a way that ignored the profound importance of healing a beloved daughter of Abraham. We settle for that in our own lives when we think that any tendency, weakness, or habit is so powerful that Christ cannot set us free from slavery to it. Regardless of how powerfully we are tempted, no power in heaven or earth can make us sin unless we choose to do so. As we prepare to welcome Christ at His Nativity, we must remember that He became a human being in order to unite us to Himself in holiness. So in order truly to celebrate Christmas, we must be in the process of being loosed from the paralyzing power of sin in our lives. We must be growing in our ability to live faithfully as sons and daughters of Abraham who are not defined by our present weaknesses and infirmities, but by the healing mercy of our Savior. We must be on the road to victory over spiritual barrenness as we welcome the Messiah more fully into our lives and play our unique roles in the salvation of the world.
Of course, doing so requires constant vigilance against temptation. It requires putting on “the whole armor of God” through the sacramental life of the Church as we devote ourselves to prayer, repentance, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and keeping a close watch on our thoughts, words, and deeds. Otherwise, there will be areas of our life where we are unprotected and weak against the forces of corruption, especially those that have taken root in our own souls and operate with such subtlety that we hardly even notice them. If we settle for just enough religion to make us socially respectable or feel better about ourselves, we will simply go through a few motions as we let down our guard and become further weakened in our ability to resist gratifying our self-centered desires. We will then become even more stooped over by corruption and blind to the many ways in which we do not see our suffering neighbors as every bit as much the unique children of God as we are. Weakness leads to more weakness, and will make us even less fertile in welcoming the Savior into our lives and world.
In the remaining weeks of Advent, let us do all that we can to cooperate with our Lord’s gracious will to loose us from the spiritual barrenness that holds us back from being united with Him in holiness. Let us “put on the whole armor of God” so that we will not settle for some watered-down view of religion that totally misses the point of why Christ was born. Let us accept the blessing that is ours as daughters and sons of Abraham through faith in Him. Surely, there is no better way to prepare ourselves to welcome the Savior at Christmas.