Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In my grandfather’s collection of photographs from his time in the US Army serving in the European Theater during World War II, one in particular captured my attention. Taken from a balcony, the photo shows American GIs kneeling during an Easter Sunday Mass in a makeshift chapel somewhere in Belgium. Shoulder to shoulder, the men kneel together at the moment of consecration. In the midst of wartime combat and chaos, their worship at Mass draws them into the greatest combat that has ever taken place. In the Eucharist, they adore the Risen Lord who entered the lists, fought the powers of sin and death, went into the tomb and decisively defeated death forever. On that Easter Sunday, the soldiers knelt in worship and reaffirmed their hope in the resurrection.
When mankind was lost in sin, God set in motion a plan for our salvation. To show us the way back to the safe refuge of his love, God not only sent prophets and messengers, he took on our human flesh, became one of us, and so in the perfectly united humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, reconciled us to Himself. Jesus leads us. Notice how he never stops at words but always leads in action. He goes to those in need of repentance and calls them to a new way of life. He heals the sick and the poor and teaches his followers to serve them as well. He gives us what is necessary to fight against the lure of evil and casts out demons on the way. The ancient consequence of sin is death. To set us free from death, Jesus goes to the Cross, sacrificing Himself for our sake, descending even to hell to ransom captive souls. This is the greatest spiritual combat to ever take place. Jesus leads from the front and calls us to follow where He leads. For the Christian, this means truly loving our neighbor as ourselves and reorienting our lives to love God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul.
The photograph is striking for another reason, for it captures what is truly happening at every single Mass. The priest stands at the head of the congregation, turned symbolically toward the Lord, ministering in persona Christi – in the person of Christ – offering to God the Father the perfect and acceptable sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Just as Jesus leads from the front, so the priest acting in Christ’s person leads from the front. The congregation of soldiers kneels in reverence, together offering their act of worship, individually offering their own personal needs in union with the sacrifice of the altar. At every Mass, the Church on earth, often called the Church militant, follows Christ into battle and is presented with the gift of victory, the Risen Body of Christ offered to us in the Eucharist. In the photo, a literal Church militant is present, loyal soldiers following Christ their head. In war, soldiers follow leaders who are good, who lead from the front. When Jesus calls us, He does not ask us to take on anything that He does not first Himself endure. St. Ignatius of Loyola writes about Jesus using the image of a good king who calls people to go with him, promising to be with those who follow him in everything, and promising further, the same reward. Jesus rises from the dead and promises us new life as well. In every Mass, we follow Jesus into battle, to the battle of the Cross; He is a leader and also a fellow soldier, who endures it all with us and on our behalf offers it to His Heavenly Father. In every Mass, especially those celebrated ad orientem – toward the altar – the priest leads the people, standing with the people as a fellow soldier in spiritual combat. The soldiers in my grandfather’s picture sacrificed much for each other and for those who would come after them. We have all heard countless stories of heroism in battle, soldiers laying down their lives to save their brothers in arms. This is what the priesthood is meant to be! One of the men in our Saturday morning Men’s Fellowship group commented recently “I’ve always looked at the priest as a ladder that gets me to God. Climb up his shoulders and into Heaven.” A priest can only be such a bridge because Christ is that bridge first.
The good news of Easter, that the tomb is empty and we have been promised a sharing in the Resurrection of Christ, is entrusted to each Christian to be shared. All of us, together, are called to lead from the front, to share the Gospel and the hope of our call with the world. I found this photo five years ago this month, as my grandfather approached his final days. Sitting in his hospital room, he lead from the front. I learned lessons about the priesthood and about discipleship from him. At times, Grandpa would beckon me over to his bedside to talk and give me advice about life. He always called me by name for these conversations. But at other times, he called me over to ask me to pray with him, to tell me how excited he was to go to Heaven and meet the Lord (and see Grandma), how much he hoped for the gift of God’s mercy. Whenever he did this, he called me “Father.” He taught me to be a disciple each time he spoke to me as his grandson. And he taught me to be a priest (and demonstrated the depths of his faith) whenever he spoke to me as his spiritual father. In his final days, my grandfather showed me how a priest must lead from the front. This photo, now nearly eighty years old and seemingly forgotten in his collection, stands out even more in that context. Most of the pictures he had were of himself and fellow soldiers which he had sent home to Grandma. Some were reconnaissance pictures that he probably wasn’t supposed to have (the most we ever got out of him about his wartime service was that he did a lot of aerial photography and surveillance, and that he was in the Battle of the Bulge). He kept this picture of Easter Mass for a reason, I am convinced. The good news of Easter was deeply rooted in his heart and he knew the gift of life that had been promised. Grandpa knew who he had to follow, and he knew that whatever challenges, sufferings, triumphs, or joys awaited him, Jesus had already won the victory. And there is the good news for us. Jesus is risen from the tomb. He has fought sin and death on our behalf and has won the final victory. He invites us to go with Him toward that final victory that gives us hope. Alleluia! Truly He is Risen! Alleluia!