For most of the past 20 years, I’ve moved in military circles. These days, it’s impossible to get the image of a soldier out of my mind, partly because our President has designated our fight against COVID-19 as a war. But there is another reason. You see, I have a dear friend who attended my installation here at St. Mary’s last October. Brian Cadet, a combat veteran from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, of whom I am very proud, just became a colonel in the U.S. Army Signal Corps a week ago, though his promotion was subdued in the wake of our national crisis. When we think of soldiers, we usually think of the infantry or the cavalry, soldiers who directly engage the enemy. Signal soldiers, by contrast, are the eyes and ears of the Army who communicate over large stretches of land to provide vital information to their Commanders. Their descendants today employ computers and satellites where once they used flags and telescopes. But did you know that these behind-the-scenes warriors were responsible for one of the most decisive victories of the Civil War? After General Lee had forced the Union Army into retreat near a small Pennsylvania town in July of 1863, he decided to mount a full scale assault, hoping perhaps to bring an end to the war. I can’t exactly grasp the particulars, but suffice it to say that the Union Army left a strategic observation post called Little Round Top largely unguarded and vulnerable, but for a small group of signal soldiers. Yet their very presence prevented Confederate troops from moving into a position for a surprise attack, and when the ordinary use of flags to communicate was no longer possible, an officer, Captain James Hall, bravely evaded enemy fire to deliver crucial intelligence to General George Meade. It was a turning point in the war, in what history now refers to as the Battle of Gettysburg, immortalized by the short, eloquent speech by President Abraham Lincoln.
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve witnessed a different kind of heroism at work in our nation. The enemy is unseen and the weapons of war are ventilators and medication. Today’s warriors are doctors, nurses, custodians, grocers, drivers, police, firefighters, and emergency workers who put themselves at risk for the rest of us; we owe them a great debt of gratitude. But what about the rest of us, who serve best by isolating ourselves to prevent the spread of disease? Can we American Catholics find a spiritual lesson from the example, the attitude, the priorities of the warrior, even in unexpected places? I believe we can.
The first reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah comes from the song of God’s Suffering Servant. The prophet may have imagined himself as the Servant who communicates God’s word to the people in all its undiluted power, a thankless job that brings with it mortal danger. But like the Signal Captain who runs through enemy fire to deliver a vital message, the Servant accepts the responsibility of his station, and pays whatever price is necessary to complete his mission. For modern people, there are so many ways to avoid the terrifying specter of their own mortality. They deny it, domesticate it, and tiptoe around it. We Catholics, however, make the crucifix—with the sacred body of Jesus hanging from it—the very center of our religion. We learn the lesson that faith—complete confidence in God—is a matter of life and death. And so we embrace the cross of Christ. Perhaps it is a good thing to behold the possibility of death and not fear it, for it is not annihilation, but rather our pathway to life in Christ.
Toward the end of the very long Passion story, St. Matthew mentions that a centurion—an officer in charge of 100 soldiers—stands guard over Jesus with his men. He hears Jesus pray on the cross, using the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The Lord Jesus speaks for all suffering human beings who, apart from their anguish, have no idea when, or if, it will end. Likewise, the soldier stands watch for the dawn, always awake, always alert and ready. We too must be alert to the call of God, and stand ready to respond to him at our own station.
Finally, the evangelist tells us that, at the moment of Jesus’ death, the veil in the sanctuary was torn in two, the earth quaked, rocks split, tombs opened, and the bodies of saints were raised and appeared in the city. The centurion and his men—not the religious authorities, not the ordinary people, not even Jesus’ disciples—declared “Truly this was the Son of God!” What do we take from this? In the military, we often talk about “situational awareness,” that is, the ability to observe and connect seemingly unrelated occurrences and react accordingly. Perhaps it is ironic that this scene, which recalls the OT vision of the resurrection of the dead, would resonate in an outsider, a pagan. But remember that earlier, Jesus praised a centurion as a model of faith in his power to heal simply by speaking his word. Friends, you and I must, with God’s help, look deeply into the events of our time—some wonderful, some frightening, some even tragic, to see the hand of God at work. It may be too facile to conclude that our present circumstances are a form of divine punishment—I don’t believe that—but it is fair to say that he is trying to get our attention.
Friends, this Holy Week, may we, like good soldiers, appreciate the seriousness of this moment, pay attention to the voice of the Lord, and point out his presence in a turbulent, wounded world.