A friend of mine wrote this description of attending Mass on an aircraft carrier:
It was 1962, the height of the Cold War. I was stationed aboard an aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific. Operations ran 24/7.
The launch of an aircraft involved catapulting planes that weighed 60,000 pounds from dead-stop to a speed of 130 miles per hour in a distance of 220 feet. There were two of these catapults, one on each side of the forward area of the flight deck. Pistons retracted the heavy chains and cables that launched the planes. Imagine the noise! Now, imagine having Mass in a metal room under that flight deck smack-dab in the middle of those catapults!
The catapult to the right would launch with a loud swoosh-kerr-thump! Followed by the snarling cables retracting—louder than a freight train and huge pistons hissing like giant snakes. There would be a slight pause, maybe a minute, before the left catapult would fire. Swoosh-kerr-thump! Followed, again, by the whip of the retracting gear. This sequence would repeat over and over again.
On top of all this was the ship’s motion. At times the elevation of the Sacred Host was at the top of a wave…other times at the bottom of a wave! Through it all, we sailors hung on until the chaplain bestowed the final blessing.
Not your typical Sunday Mass. His words remind me of a quote by Annie Dillard:
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.
Today is Palm Sunday and today’s Mass is not your typical Sunday Mass. The gospel reading does not refer to a domestic scenes with children, flowers in a field or bread rising in an oven. Nor does it reveal pastures with grazing sheep or acres of wheat ripe for harvest.
Rather, we hear an account of the Passion of Christ and, like sailors on an aircraft carrier, we can’t ignore the deafening rumble of war.
Yes, war: the sacrifice of the Lamb of God to defeat the power of sin and the fear of death. What will it take for us to realize Mass is not a fieldtrip to some historic battlefield, it is reliving the war and the cost incurred.
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
in order that everyone who believes in him
may have eternal life.”
Today, like sailors on a carrier, we see Christ lifted up, rising and falling on the waves of history. We stare slack-jawed at his mouth, open in silent agony; his stomach, distended, like that of every child who ever died of starvation in the arms of its mother; his naked torso, a reminder of every sexual sin ever committed; the gash in his side wet with blood from every back alley knife and prison yard shank.
No, this is not your typical Sunday. This is war. God’s war against evil in all its forms and manifestations.
Grab your helmet. Bend your knee. And hang on for all your worth.