Several years ago I was deployed to a war zone through the Lenten and Easter seasons. The forty days of Lent, mirroring Jesus’ own sojourn in the wilderness following his baptism, takes on a new significance when one is “bedded down” in the most desolate of deserts. Both the temptations of the devil, as well as the ministrations of the angels are in abundance “out there.”
Many would be surprised to learn that even in deployed locations, religious observances tend to run pretty much as they would in a stateside church or chapel; pretty much the same except for the fact that all the parishioners are packing heat, and the occasional rocket can land just yards from the front flap of the church! At this particular Good Friday service, I began the rite of veneration by holding aloft the roughly hewn cross and chanting, “Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.” Just as the faithful replied with “Come, let us worship,” several fully-loaded F-16’s went roaring, and I mean, ROARING down the runway, which was a few hundred feet away, and drowned out the congregation’s response. The planes took off to patrol the skies, and to drop their bombs if called to do so. Would somebody die that day, I wondered? How about someone who was innocent, what we call “collateral damage”? How about the pilots and the ground crew, would they all return? Did any of them want or need to be at the Good Friday service, but could not go due to mission requirements? What do those pilots think about the morality of what they’re doing? More importantly, what does God think about what they’re doing? These, and other questions ricocheted around my brain as I waited out the ear-splitting scream of the F-16’s.
Obviously, you don’t have to be in a war zone like I was to come face-to-face with seeming incongruities. Life is full of them, day in and day out. They appear to us every time we realize, “This isn’t the way it was supposed to be.” In fact, so much of our energy is spent trying to understand and come to terms with the incongruities we have already all experienced in life. For example, when grown-ups let us down, when young people die, when bad behavior gets rewarded and good behavior goes unnoticed, and so forth. The expression, “Life isn’t fair” is a truism that we’re taught to help us cope with the hurts that come our way from the rest of the world. Furthermore, the season of Lent is intended to purify us, to make us less of a reason that other people have to learn and accept that expression in their own lives. It’s here to aid us in our life-long struggle of matching what we proclaim on Easter Sunday with how we live the rest of the year.
My natural instinct is to point out the incongruities in the lives of others; to be the Sanhedrin, or Herod, or Pontius Pilate, if not out loud, then certainly in my own mind. On that Good Friday in the desert I was given the grace to see that in so many ways, I was more like the Christ-denying Peter than the innocent, aggrieved Savior. On that day, as each of my comrades came to kiss the cross, with their .9 millimeter weapons holstered at the waist, I was perplexed and uncomfortable at the sight of highly trained warriors humbling themselves before the Prince of Peace, and one another.
On that day, the incongruity of Jesus’ royal banner being affixed to a throne of wood and nails made me realize the vanity of all the ease I seek. I was also embarrassingly aware of the fact that although we appeared to the rest of the world to be the mightiest military on the planet, as soon as the rockets came too close, we would all duck and cover in fear for our lives, just like the Apostles who scrambled to save their own necks.
On that Friday in the desert, with the messiness of our fallen world in plain view, the incongruity became clear. It finally made sense to me why we call it “Good.”
Father James A. Hamel is a Catholic priest who is a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force. He is currently an instructor at the Air Force Chaplain Corps College at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.