Brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. 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.

There is much evil in this world.  It causes so much suffering.  We know that something needs to be done.  But how can we confront it?  It has marched through the institutions – and so we find ourselves outnumbered and outgunned.  How are we supposed to win this war?  And then, in today’s epistle reading, we are reminded what is available to us:  the whole armor and weaponry of God.

Those of us who have come to Orthodoxy from outside often feel this most acutely, but we have all seen first-hand how inadequate heterodox theologies are to deal with the hideous strength of the powers of the world.  Becoming Orthodox can feel like getting a whole set of power-ups.  We gird up our loins – our passions – with the self-assurance of the truth and then up-armor with +5 Breastplate of Righteousness, the +5 Shield of Faith, the +5 Helmet of Salvation, and most especially the +5 Vorpal Sword of the Spirit.  Girded with this kit, we are finally ready to wade back into battle so that we can destroy the enemy and all his power and all his pride and all his pomp.

But who is that enemy and who do we actually end up fighting?

We all know that St. Paul begins this reading by reminding us that our true enemies are the demons, but is that how we act?  Do we let the Armor of God protect us from the flaming darts of the evil one so that we can withstand the evil day and bring healing to the victims of the demons’ war against mankind, moving among the fallen and exhausted to bring comfort and healing?  Or do we instead call anyone who has fallen under the sway and influence of the rulers of the present darkness “enemy” and fight them?  Do we see conversations with our alleged human enemies as opportunities for healing and growth or as opportunities for hand-to-hand combat with us playing the part of the Holy Warrior and the other the part of the evil incarnate?

The image of spiritual warfare is a powerful one, and the armor of God is a critical component of it.  But I’m not sure we are mature enough to benefit from this image.  Because the powers of the world have tricked pretty much everyone into framing pretty much everything of any importance in terms of war and violence, we end up fighting on its terms, doing its dirty work even as we us Orthodox words and memes to justify it.  There is great danger here.  Our alleged use of the armor and weapon of God becomes blasphemous when we use them against their true intent. We are so eager to wade into battle using our new kit that we forget that our Commission is to save, not destroy.  They are what allow us to abide in the shelter of the Most High, protected from the terror of the night and every other demonic assault so that we can go about sharing the light with those who live in darkness.

Again, the image of spiritual warfare resonates with us because we live in a world that has bought into the idea of warfare.  Unfortunately, it does not use this image in the way the Church does.  Instead of using it as a metaphor for spiritual struggle, it uses the images and emotions of warfare to provide justifications for self-righteousness, polarization, and the demonization of the other.  It uses it to increase division – the very goal of Satan, the Arch-heretic and Divider.  Real spiritual warfare requires love, but it’s hard for us to be and share love when are mobilized for this kind of war. 

The Armor of God can shield our hearts and protect its love against the pestilence that walks in darkness and the destruction that wastes at noonday, but what is there to protect when we have given our hearts over to hating and destroying the children of God?

And so I want to offer another image for this work we are called to do.  Today in this Archdiocese we celebrate our musicians.  So I am going to share St. Paul’s message in a musical key:

Put on the whole harmony of God.   

There is a lot of discord out in the world, and people suffer from it.  We see the damage and it breaks our hearts.  We abhor the noise and want something better for us, for our children, for everyone and everything.  God is the source of beauty and he has called us to share that beauty in a way that brings the crooked ways of discord into resolution.

Do we do this by just wading into the noise and playing louder?  Do you see how that would just add to the discord?  Moreover, do you see how it makes people less open to experiencing the beauty of the Gospel music?  How the negative emotions this approach creates make people unwilling to take us and our message seriously? 

It is also doubtful that someone who approaches the work of harmony in this way could even hold onto the idea and reality of beauty.  You can’t transform noise by making more of it, and trying to do so is more likely to make us deaf to both the harmony of the spheres and – here’s a new idea - any potential resonances in the music others are playing. 

You see, it isn’t “the world” that makes this noise, it’s people.  And because God made the structure of sound “good” and the people who use that sound “very good”, it is not possible to make music that is purely bad, music that is nothing but noise.  If we listen closely, we can find parts of it that – despite sin and heresy – we can hear as good and useful.  And if we have truly put on the harmony of God, we can grab onto those bits of logi and move with them in grace towards glory. 

Here I have in mind not the Christian who wanders into the middle of a bacchanalian mass-caucaphony of clanging symbols and off-key wailing. While the whole harmony of God will keep us sane in the midst of such things, I have in mind conversations with people whose idea of beauty and music have been informed by an exposure to a lifetime of siren songs, battle hymns, and riotous concerts. Look for the good that still remains in their music and harmonize with it. Gently find the wounds their song reveals and provide comfort.  The mere act of conversing with genuine attention and love allows space for grace, even if the words that the other is speaking are utter nonsense.  [to quote our funeral service] In such a moment, it is the connection -not the words - that is True and that can provide the opportunity to transform the funeral dirge of their demon-tainted or demon-inspired confusion into the hymn, “alleluia.”  This kind of duet is what makes the deserts bloom and the crooked straight, it is the way of bringing God’s beauty to bear on the ugliness of blight and make it bloom.  And this change can happen if we put on the whole harmony of God.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about this kind of transformation, but this message of resolving dissonance into glory isn’t just from the Silmarillion, it’s from the Gospel.

In order to do participate in this great work, we need to have immersed ourselves in worship, prayer, and charitable work; we must have submitted ourselves so completely to God’s will that His Love has transformed us into love and His Beauty has transformed us into beauty. 

It is then that we see within everything, even within the polemical battle hymns of our opponents, notes or themes that can be accented, valued, and moved through harmonic progressions towards and into the melody of the Gospel.

St. Paul did this with the unknown God at the Aeropagaus.  He was in the midst of a place dedicated to the worship of fallen gods.  Such a place is full of discordant tunes and distorted lyrics.  But in the midst of it, he found a note that he could focus on and use to evangelize.  St. Justin did the same with pagan mythologies. 

Do we have enough love, enough true harmony in us, to hear bits of beauty in the music of our enemies?  To see a desire for something good within their hearts?  If we can’t, we aren’t trying hard enough.  Its nobility, its virtue, may be misplaced, but that’s just the establishment of a relationship and the subsequent development of conversations – that is to say, it is just a sustained duet - away from being transformed from dissonance into beauty.  If St. Paul can do it with a demonic pantheon, we can do it with political ideologies, propaganda, and heterodox religions.

Yes, we can use the words of the Fathers to justify hatred and self-righteousness and win rhetorical battles.  Yes, we can play good music really loud in hopes of drowning out the bad – but neither solves the problems of the world’s pain. Quite the opposite.  That’s because neither approach is really Orthodox, even if the words we use and the music we play come straight from components of Orthodox Tradition.

However, when we love so much that we are able to see the good in others and nurture it using the good that God has grown within us, the world becomes a better place.

That’s the Harmony of God and it brings the melody of our salvation.

Direct download: 20231210-HarmonyofGod.mp3
Category:Orthodox Podcast -- posted at: 2:20pm EDT