Think of the images of the year to date. The Capital invaded, emergency rooms overflowing, ecological revenge in fire and water, people on life support from the delta variant and most recently Afghanis hanging on to airplanes taking off from Kabul. Yet for me the most lasting image will be of Marine Corps Sergeant Nicole Gee holding a baby that was I hope eventually transported out of Afghanistan and posting “I love my job”. She was killed two days later. This is tragic, ironic, and poignant all at the same time, but also an illustration of what the Gospel means by “take up your cross and follow me.”
Marks’s audience knew that Jesus had been crucified and believed that he had been resurrected. This was an act of power which overshadowed the Roman Empire. Yet Rome was still persecuting them. Throughout the gospel, Mark and indeed all the gospel writers will show that Jesus is bringing the kingdom that is both already here, but not yet complete. The disciples can expect misunderstanding and persecution from their own families, communities, and the empire itself. Christians will be expected to give an account of their beliefs, and this will be difficult. It is literally the cross: they must confess that Jesus both died and rose. Jesus’ demand is that we show integrity when we are challenged and continue this proclamation and live its consequences. A person may be killed but the truth of the cross will set a Christian free, to hide in mere human power will enslave. Thinking like human beings and not like God has its consequences.
Yesterday, we commemorated the attack on our country on 9/11/2001. These images are also seared into our memories. Response was necessary and would be a test of our integrity. How can power be used to prevent another occurrence without changing society for the worse? The results have been disappointing to say the least: we began the assertion of the complicity of Saddam Hussein in the planning for 9/11 and the existence of weapons of mass destruction with little credible evidence, proceeded to torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and suffered the rise of Isis in Iraq and the fall of Afghanistan. Confusing power with force and indeed trusting the force of lies does not bear witness to the power of Jesus. The results have been easily predictable.
Yet think again about Sergent Gee. She was not alone. The more stories I have heard about our service people in the forever wars the more I see that so many of them picked up the cross others dropped.
Full disclosure: I served in parishes which supplied the troops for these wars and know many people in the armed forces by name. I am old enough to have even baptized some of them. I am not unbiased in this, but I will still suggest that we not only read the stories of our service people with respect but also see them as models for our own testing as individuals and as a community as we return to the new normal.
The other group that has guided me is Catholic Moral theologians. The parallels are many and strong, but we will look at just 2:
They are the groups that speak most eloquently about the common good. The common good in Catholic Social thought is the recognition that we have obligations to each other which cannot be ignored. Theologians have shown how this concern has been present at every moment since the Old Testament and how it is applicable in today’s world. When I hear many of our veterans talk, I see the same impulse. How many joined after 9/11 with the desire to serve something beyond themselves? To look at just one: a young man was interviewed this week who left his teaching post on Long Island, went off to serve and then returned to that same school and is sharing this sense of human collaboration with his students. His recognition of the common good continues.
Most significant to me however has been the leadership of veterans’ groups in maintaining contact with translators and others who helped our efforts in Afghanistan. They have been at the forefront of getting these people out and into safety often at their own expense and occasional risk.
This year during the response to covid we have seen people act with callous disregard for the safety of others including the most vulnerable. We will need the recognition of and dedication to the common good for us to rebuild our communities. I would not be surprised to find veterans showing us the way.
The other area is in development of skills and talents. In the Catholic Church the gravestones vote. We are a church of tradition; we cannot simply think that something is a nice idea and baptize it. It must be found in our history. It has been well said that tradition is not wearing your grandfather’s hat but having a baby. It needs to both walk around today and have a solid pedigree. CST is the product of countless hours by countless scholars in many disciplines discovering what our principles have been and how they can be applied today.
Listening to veterans I have been amazed at the number of skills they have developed to fulfil their tasks. Particularly impressive was one young man who I knew as a bright but unmotivated teenager who joined the army and strained to learn many new and difficult skills to fulfill his duty. Do we have the will to learn and use new skills to rebuild church and society?
The task ahead of us is difficult. We have experienced both a pandemic and the revolt of nature at the same time. We can expect variations on this theme to continue. We cannot assume that what worked in the past will work in the future. Every group in society must do its part. For Christinas that means bearing the Cross, acknowledging that what is true power may seem to worldly eyes as weakness. Accepting the cross is always painful but refusing it is catastrophic.