Shield of Faith
by Rev. Fr. David Eynon
Like many boys of a certain age, I spent a lot of time playing with toy soldiers and, in my case, this developed into a love of history. I got caught up in weapons, armor, battles and strategies. I was fascinated by the cultural, political and geographical contexts. As I grew more interested, I came across a fascinating historical board game belonging to my father. The game took its name from one of the most formidable troop formations of the ancient world — the phalanx. Soldiers would stand shoulder to shoulder in large rectangular formations where the front line would interlock their shields. Armed with long weapons like spears, this allowed the first ranks to attack over the shield wall. Any kind of frontal assault on such a formation would be really difficult at best.
I mention this as a prelude to one of my favorite metaphors in all of Scripture:
“Brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might . . . 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 shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.” — Ephesians 6:10; 12; 16
Metaphors, of course, invite us to apply them to our own lives. As 21st century Americans, however (being several centuries removed from soldiers using shields), this is not an easy a task as one might think. Due to the historic proximity, we might be tempted to imagine the medieval knight ready to charge into battle for individual glory or the hand of a fair maiden. Despite the similarity in language, however, the medieval knight is not a type of soldier that St. Paul would have been aware of when he wrote to the Ephesians. Rather, he would have been familiar with warfare that produced formations like the phalanx.
Therefore, to understand St. Paul’s metaphor, it is important to understand how a soldier in a phalanx would have used his shield. Primarily, the shield was used not to protect the soldier himself, but the soldier next to him. Indeed, soldiers had to have faith in their fellow soldier — that they would sacrifice the protection of their shield.
The concept of sacrifice, of course, is central to the Christian faith. Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ willingly sacrificed Himself for us. In turn, we are told by our Savior: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” — Matthew 16:24
In other words, the Shield of Faith can also be called the Cross. This is confirmed at the feast of the Elevation of the Cross, celebrated on September 14th. Note the hymn: “This very Cross of the Lord, then, let us all surely hold as our boast. For this wood is our salvation, the shield of peace, the trophy invincible.”
This, then, is our key to applying the metaphor to our own lives. In order to pick up the Shield of Faith, we must pick up the Cross. In a word: sacrifice. Of course, the Church provides many opportunities and tools in which to practice sacrifice. The most common, however, may be a surprise: the family.
Notice what the Church advises for husbands in the Epistle Reading from the marriage service: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Ephesians 5:25) Christ went to the Cross for His bride, the Church. In a word: sacrifice. Wives are called to submit to their husbands. In a word: sacrifice. To use St. Paul’s metaphor from above, husband and wife are to stand as a phalanx, using their Shield of Faith to protect, not themselves, but their spouse.
This, of course can be extended to the whole family: everyone — whether a parent, a child, a grandparent, or extended family member — can use their Shield of Faith to protect the other members of the family. They can stand in a phalanx with interlocked shields.
When a husband and wife — and by extension the whole family — place the needs of the other above their own the marriage and the family not only works, but thrives. As spouses get to know each other, they begin to anticipate what the other one needs even before their spouse realizes what he/she needs! The Shield of Faith, wielded by one spouse protects the other before they even realize that they are in danger. This phalanx becomes even more powerful when the whole family is doing the same.
This path of sacrifice, this shield of the Cross is confirmed in our worship: “Lord, God Almighty, You alone are holy. You accept a sacrifice of praise from those who call upon You with their whole heart. Receive also the prayer of us sinners… Enable us to bring before You… spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the transgressions of the people. Make us worthy… so that our sacrifice may be pleasing to You and that Your good and gracious Spirit may abide with us, with the gifts here presented, and with all Your people.” — Prayer of the Proskomide
We are called to take up the Shield of Faith through sacrifice — by freely placing the needs of others before our own—and to bring this sacrifice forth before the altar of God for our salvation and the salvation of the people. This sounds counter-intuitive. Our natural instinct is to hold on to what we have for our own protection. Remember, though, we are talking about the Cross — a font of mercy and power that is endless.
In the game of Phalanx, just as with its antecedent chess, it is necessary to sacrifice pieces in order to win. The phalanx formation — as long as every soldier was willing to sacrifice his shield for another — was virtually invincible. Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross defeated death by death. By imitating Christ, by regarding our families as phalanxes in the spiritual warfare of the fallen world, we will help each other on our journey toward the Kingdom of God.
Fr. David W. Eynon is pastor of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Decatur, Illinois. He also maintains a blog entitled, “Shine Within Our Hearts.” Fr. David graduated from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2008. He is married and has three children.