From Braveheart to Gladiator and Master and Commander, every movie about warfare and strategy has its epic battle scene. The fighting, however, is always preceded by a time of intense preparation. In the midst of their camp or ship, soldiers and sailors prepare themselves and their equipment for the fight that is a few short hours away. Some men lay all their gear out before them, while others have a memorized procedure that takes only minutes. Some are nervous and panicked, and others are seen praying as they tighten, buckle, and sharpen their battle array. However this ritual is done, each man takes his preparation seriously, realizing that the strap and link he ties now may be the one that deflects the fatal strike from his enemy.
One army that knew how to prepare for warfare was that of the Roman Empire. Besides a high degree of discipline, organization, and training, a Roman soldier was also armed from head to foot. A Roman legionary soldier would have have segments of iron-plated armor from his torso up to his shoulders, with a helmet designed to prevent most blade attacks. While wielding both a short sword and a throwing javelin, he would carry a rectangular shield that covered most of his body. A Roman soldier’s armor was not to protect himself alone, either: With shields locked closely together, each soldier would march in step, forming a battle line of bronze and iron. Even their footwear was studded with iron hobnails that left an impression on their trail and their enemies.
While a Roman legion’s battle array was impressive in its own right, ancient warfare provides a powerful and apposite metaphor for the battle of the spiritual realm. St. Paul famously says in his letter to the Ephesians:
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil (6:11).
Now, St. Paul was no soldier himself—he was a Jew and raised as a Pharisee before his conversion. If there is one soldier, however, which he commonly saw during his missionary travels from Jerusalem to Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome, it was the Roman soldier, legions of whom spanned the borders of the empire in the 1st century A.D. Taking what he saw of these men in their battle gear, he articulated the mysteries of the faith in the words of warfare, saying to the Ephesians:
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 (6:14-17).
While this is an excellent metaphor for understanding the Christian life, it also communicates the reality of our situation today. Every Christian wears a spiritual armor that has its strength rooted in the saving power of Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit. And this armor is similar to the Creed which we profess: Neither is merely for appearance’s sake. No soldier would ever wear a piece of armor simply out of formality—he wore it because it would save his life. In the same way, what we believe and practice as Christians is not just an accessory to the faith, but essential to its survival.
When we put our trust in Christ and confess the salvation he won for us, we are putting on this spiritual armor. If we deny what Christ has taught us, we are leaving open gaps in our faith for an Enemy who looks to strike us only at our weakest. No enemy, whether material or spiritual, ever tries to hit his opponent where he is strongest.
The Christian faith is a whole faith, a faith whose clarity and reasonableness is seen in its totality. This is why St. Paul tells us to put on the whole armor of God, and not just a segment or two of what we choose to believe or think useful.
Whether in the culture at large or in the growth of our own faith, a battle is occurring daily. The weapons and armor to win this battle are as real as Christ’s victory on the cross.
Image: Luca Giordano, Aeneas and Turnus.