Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Lenten Fast and Spiritual Battle

Rebuking the Devil

"Support us, Lord,
as with this Lenten fast
we begin our Christian warfare,
so that in doing battle against the spirit of evil
we may be armed with the weapon of self-denial.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen".

This prayer, which was said after the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, is now the Collect of today's Mass.

The militaristic language of this prayer is especially striking, and particularly apt during Lent. Older missals used to print at the top of each day of Lent, something like: Station at Santa Sabina. Even though missals seldom print this now, many will know that the church in Rome still honours the ancient practice of daily Mass in a different church of the city during Lent, and this is called the stational church, and the liturgy a stational liturgy. This used to apply to the papal liturgy, and the Station was the Pope's solemn Mass for the whole city of Rome.

But in fact, the notion of spiritual warfare is nicely brought out by statio. This word first appears in Greek in the 'Shepherd of Hermas' where it refers to a fast, and St Isidore identifies station and fast. So too, Tertullian referred to fast days as dies stationis. For the Latin word itself ordinarily means 'standing on post' or 'on guard', and Tertullian says that the Church's use of it for fasting is derived from its military origin, to give the sense that we are made vigilant against the Devil's temptations through keeping the fast.

The use of the word statio to describe the gathering of the liturgical assembly around the bishop of Rome, therefore, is also militarily significant. Because not only is the Church keeping guard at a particular church, but there is also the sense that the act of prayer - indeed, the Holy Sacrifice itself - also keeps us vigilant, defends, and protects against the wiles of the Enemy.

As Christ says in Matthew 17:21, "But this kind [of evil spirit] is not cast out but by prayer and fasting".

The stained glass window above, which dates to 1437 is from the church of St Martin-le-Grand in York. It shows St Martin of Tours engaged in spiritual battle with the Devil. May he intercede for us in our on-going battle with the ancient Enemy.

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