A brief observation of the first two days in Lent reveals militaristic, even violent imagery in the battle against sin and the unruly passions of the flesh. The Collect (opening prayer) of Ash Wednesday provides an image of troops mustering for battle:
Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
“Battle,” “weapons,” and “armed” all clearly have military connotations, but so does the phrase “campaign of Christian service” if we look at the Latin text: praesidia miltiae Christianae. The service or action (praesidia) is one of Christian battle or militancy (militiae). This refers to the Church Militant—the Church here on earth—waging war against sin and the kingdom of darkness.
Thus the opening prayer on Ash Wednesday announced and summoned us to a battle that is engaged by the Church with special intensity during Lent.
The Gospel for Thursday after Ash Wednesday also has a battle theme. Jesus says,
If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (Luke 9:23-25).
The battle theme is particularly apparent if one looks at the Greek text. The word translated as “lose” in English does not capture the vigor of the Greek word ἀπόλλυμι (apollumi). Apollumi comes from the root apó, meaning away from, with the intensifier ollymi, “to destroy.” Thus apollumi means to fully destroy, cutting off entirely. It implies permanent or absolute destruction.
So when Jesus says we must “lose” our life, it is really far stronger than the English translation captures. Losing our life involves a kind of violent overthrow of our worldly notions and the deep drives of sin. We must lose. That is, we must see utterly destroyed and cut off all things worldly, fleshly, and of the devil. This is war and it is going to involve more than a mumbled, half-hearted prayer on our part. Scripture says, In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood (Heb 12:4).
So behold the militaristic imagery as Lent begins. To arms!
The idea of such a battle might overwhelm us if we thought it must all be done in one day. Jesus says that we should take up our cross daily. Our daily cross is vital to our success. It’s not our weekly cross, or our monthly cross, or our yearly cross. We ought to do each day what we should do. If we put off or postpone the daily cross, the problems pile up. A monthly cross can seem overwhelming, and a yearly cross might seem impossible. Everyday discipline is crucial. Soon enough, the daily discipline becomes virtue; it becomes a good habit that one accomplishes fairly easily. To take up our cross daily is to endure short-term pain for long-term gain.
The battle is engaged! Fight it daily. Fight it with the Lord. Understand that it is battle, but in Jesus (and only in Jesus) the victory is won. Stay on the winning side and fight daily to the end.