Winning the Struggle: A Homily by Deacon Alan Doty

“Moses’ Hands Held Up,” detail of a 19th-century wood engraving by Frederick Richard Pickersgill (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

While our children were young, Pam and I asked our own parents to fill out a book, a sort of workbook and scrapbook, one for each, that were called ‘Grandmas’ Story and ‘Grandpas’ Story”. It consisted of a series of questions about their life growing up, school, family, how they met each other and much more. They were intended as a way to start a conversation, to give context to their lives, and to have something precious to hand on.

The books were for our children of course, but I recently came across the Grandpa book that my father filled out. Looking back just one generation, it is still hard to envision living in the society they and so many of all our parents knew, so different from our lives today.

It is even harder, infinitely harder, to look back on what life was like for ancient Israel. Today from the Book of Exodus we heard about a battle between two tribes that happened over 3,000 years ago. What does the Church mean in presenting this reading this morning?

Just as with my father’s workbook, context is useful. This war between Amalek and Israel is the first time that Israel was attacked after leaving Egypt. It was the first of many battles Israel had to fight, but as the first, this battle had special significance. According to Jewish scholars, this first battle against the first enemy, is meant to represent all the battles Israel would have to fight for their existence. The Israelites were the first people to know and have faith in God. The battle we just read about is when the first enemy attacked the first people of faith.

I don’t have to tell you who the first enemy of faith, indeed the first enemy of humankind, is. The tempter, the father of lies, Satan is the first and perpetual enemy of faith.

Knowing this, let’s then take another look at the battle. The people of God are attacked by the first enemy and the outcome was far from certain. What turned the tide was the prayer of Moses, his hands uplifted in supplication to God. It was the constant prayer of Moses that allowed Israel to win this battle.

You could say that the exact same battle continues to this very day. Since the beginning our faith is under attack, and since the beginning it is our faith in God, expressed by our prayers, that allows us to win. We don’t win all the battles, but with God’s mercy the final victory is certain.

One more thing about the story from Exodus. Moses didn’t do it alone. He didn’t do the fighting, Joshua and his warriors fought. Moses did not pray alone, he had two others beside him strengthening him when he grew tired, literally supporting his prayer.

Our battle of faith against the enemy is not intended to be undertaken alone. We fight our battle against darkness and chaos in the midst of the Church, which is the body of Christ.  When you feel the weakest, when your faith falters, the Church supports you, literally lifting your arms up in prayer. The community of all the baptized accompany you, the Communion of Saints and the Holy Angels are our warriors; the Sacraments and Scripture stand beside us to strengthen us as Aaron and Hur stood beside Moses, literally supporting our prayer when we grow tired.

We each fight many battles, every day, against the enemy, who seems to be stronger than ever. The victory of Christ over death and over darkness is our guarantee of victory. This victory of Christ is shared with us through our Baptism, and yet it is at the same time still to be fully accomplished in our lives. Jesus Christ has given us the victory, but even so we find ourselves in a struggle against the sin of the world and our most powerful weapon in this fight is prayer.

In the Gospel we just read, Jesus describes for us another battle, or should I say another scene in the same battle against the ancient foe. In this case, a widow persists in prayer against the forces of injustice. In Jewish society of that day a widow was emblematic of weakness, not because widows are weak but because she has lost her husband and her husband’s family, and it is family that protects their members. Yet, she perseveres. The widow with her faith takes the battle to the unjust judge, and notice who tires first. Not the widow. As an Israelite she fights with the faith of Moses and all her people on her side, lifting her arms in constant supplication to the Lord. We would do well to take the widow as our champion.

Just as in reading my father’s story, seeing life in this context makes vision clearer. In the daily struggle and business of life, in the stress and even anger we confront, and especially in the many distractions that invade our thoughts, our lives may feel as chaotic and dangerous as the battle of the Israelites against Amalek. To be in the struggle is to be winning the struggle because we rely not on our own strength but on the cross of Christ. As long as our hands are raised in prayer, then in this life or the next we will share in Christ’s victory.

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