The Mass began like a normal Lenten Mass, with a silent procession up the aisle, the congregation standing....waiting. The piano began to play soft background music as Father began the opening prayer. At intervals the choir and congregation sang the penitential rite:
"Kyr-i-e Ele-i-son! Chri-ste E-le-i-son, Ky-ri-e E-le-i-son!"
Mary bent her head, praying, singing along, wishing her son was with her. She wished this horrible war was over and her family could be back together again. Mary's husband Michael and their teenage daughter, Christy, stood on each side of her, and they all felt John's absence acutely. Theirs wasn't the only family member absent today; each week a Mass was dedicated to the parishioners who were serving their country in Iraq.
Father, intoned, "We offer this Mass today for Lance Corporal John Ames, 3rd Infantry, U.S. Marine Corps...."
"Lord, hear our prayer," responded the congregation.
Tears filled Mary's eyes, so touched was she by the support they'd received from their parish community. She hadn't heard from John since he left for the war. He was somewhere in Iraq; in that hot, horrible desert, doing his duty as he'd pledged when he joined the military. She prayed that Jesus walked beside him and his fellow soldiers. Around her, silently, the other parishioners did the same. Many felt the same anguish.
Ky-rie E-le-i-son, Chr-i-ste E-le-i-son, Ky-r-ie E-le-i-son!**
(**Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.**)
John knelt in the sand, stood in the sand and tried to breathe through the sand as the storm swirled around him. It was Sunday morning in America, and he thought of his family going to Mass, the devout Catholics that they were. He wished he was there. He wondered when he'd be able to go home again. And he wondered when this terrible sandstorm would pass. The wind was dying down, but until it did, progress would be very slow. At the moment they were all hunkered down, searching for the shelter they knew was there - if they could only get there. Although they were in their camp, it was easy to get lost and lose their bearings just from going from one tent to another!
John sat on the first cot he came to and pulled out his tablet. He was going to take the lull in battle to write a letter to his family as they waited for the storm to die down. He was keeping a collection of letters as he had no access to e-mail due to his job and mobility in the war. When he had the opportunity, he planned to send them all, in order.
Dear Mom, Dad, and Christy,
I know you won't get this letter for a long time as there is no way to mail anything from this God-forsaken place. But please know that you're in my thoughts and prayers every day. I can't wait to come home. Currently we are in the midst of yet another storm (see previous letters). Have you been keeping a tally? It seems that no sooner does one end that another begins! It makes me very nervous to be out here not knowing if our air support will be able to follow through due to weather conditions.
But we are doing our jobs and all is going well. There have been very few casualties. Of course some are expected, it is a war, after all, but it's better not to think about that. Don't worry too much about me over here, especially you, Mom. We're very well trained, very careful, and very much looking forward to coming home.
P.S. Can we have grilled steak with your special marinade and corn on the cob for dinner when I get back? :)
Well, we're being called....gotta go. Will write more later. Take care, and....will you please pray for me? And for all of us over here? I know you already are, every day. Thanks, from all of us!
Love and miss you all,
He tucked the latest installment into his fatigues, keeping them all together to be sent to his family as soon as he was able. John picked up his weapon and walked into the desert, ready to embark on their next mission.
They learned that radar had picked up a line of Iraqi troops in the "surrender" position that the U.S. Military had detailed to them. The command staff cautioned them to be sure it wasn't an ambush, and to be ready to fight. They moved into the desert, into the darkness, guided by their contour maps and night vision goggles.
Kyr-ie E-le-i-son...Chr-ist-e E-le-i-son! Ky-r-i-e E-le-i-son.
Mary sat listening to the sermon that day. Father was talking about the inclination of humans to want to strike out against their enemies. But he cautioned to not get so caught up so as to dehumanize others.
"We are all called to acts of compassion as a demonstration of love. And that is hardest when the people most in need of our compassion are ‘the enemy.’Try to remember that God doesn't play politics...He loves us all. He sees us all with the same eyes, created us all in the same image, and expects us to do as Jesus taught...accept each other in His love..."
Mary closed her eyes, thinking of John, fighting in the desert against young men just like him or older men like his father; with families, children and others who loved them. She had no quarrel with the people; she only wanted her son home safe - just as did all the mothers in Iraq.
Ky-rie E-le-i-son...Chr-i-ste E-le-i-son, Ky-ri-e E-le-i-son...
John approached the sand berm carefully, weapon locked and loaded. Was this a surrender or an ambush? Were there wounded they would carry out?
He saw the white flags and a few Iraqi soldiers on their knees, waiting, speaking in their tongues, trying to be understood. John, although a "killing machine" by training, was compassionate through upbringing. He unconsciously lowered his weapon as he tried to understand what they said.
Too late, he realized it was a ploy. The entire unit was surrounded by these men. The Americans fought bravely, but one by one they began to fall, their lives given to God and their country. There was nowhere for the remaining soldiers to run. John didn't want to be a POW, but he knew that if he didn't surrender, he'd be killed for certain.
John fell to his knees, both hands upraised, rifle held pointing aloft in his right. Staring into the mute, deadly eyes of the Iraqi weapons, he dropped his own, conceding his freedom in preservation of his life.
John and his fellow soldiers knelt there, hands raised while they were searched and cleared of any potential weapons. Had there been fewer Iraqis, they would have fought; but all knew it was futile, and all were choosing to submit. They had been trained in what to do if ever captured, so John waited, letting his training and, more importantly, his Faith take over.
The prayer came to him out of nowhere and he grasped it, repeating aloud, but almost under his breath, "Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy."
The Iraqi soldiers stopped in their approach, understanding that he was not speaking English...what did he say? No matter...they went forward and grabbed him and the few others roughly, pulling them to their feet. All were wounded from the battle, although not severely. Those with leg injuries were not carried, though...they were forced to walk, leaving trails of blood behind them which were quickly absorbed into the sand.
After marching for a short time the Iraqi soldiers stopped and forced the prisoners to their knees. A group of them stood behind the POW's and John felt the cold, hard steel of the Iraqi weapon pressed against the back of his head.
He looked up at the enemy in front of him and saw no compassion; only dark, gloating eyes. He vaguely wondered if that was his expression when he'd killed their troops. John wondered if this was the end, and he prayed to God, asking for forgiveness for the lives he'd taken. He thought of his family back home, probably still sitting at Mass, and prayed that they would be strong when they received the news. He panicked for awhile, thinking of them; of his life unfinished.
A sense of calm overcame him. An eye in the storm. John felt that he was going to die and he asked Jesus to meet him, to forgive him, and to preserve his soul in heaven. He had no access to the final Sacraments…all he had was hope in Divine Mercy.
The rifle clicked behind him as the commander gave the word to the firing squad. Overcome suddenly, inexplicably John sang softly, defiantly in the face of his enemy, "Ky-r-i-e....E-le-i-son...Chr-i-ste E-le-i-son, Ky-r-i-e El-e-i-son!....Kyr-i-e E-le-i-son, Chr-i-ste E-le-i-son, Ky-rie E-le-i-son.... "
His brother soldiers, to his surprise, took up the musical litany and sang with him, "Ky-r-ie, E-le-i-son! Chr-i-ste E-le-i-son, Ky-r-i-e E-le-i-son!...."
John felt the steel barrel pulled away from the back of his head as the soldier behind him stepped back, not sure how to respond. They hadn't expected this! John looked straight into the eyes of the Commander, still singing. He saw something there...a brief moment of compassion maybe? A respite? A realization that these POW's were men just like him? Their eyes locked in a moment of understanding and the Commander began to raise his hand. A sharp word from another Iraqi officer stopped him and the shadow fell across him again. The gun pushed hard against his head once again; and yet John and his fellow soldiers sang, waiting...
Kyr-i-e E-le-i-son! Chr-i-ste E-le-i-son! Ky-r-i-e E-le-i-son!.....
At the beginning of the liturgy of the Eucharist, the parishioners prayed aloud, "May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of His name, for our good and the good of all His Church..."
The priest blessed the bread and wine consecrating them in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, transforming them into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ.
Mary was suddenly and inexplicably overcome with emotion, and something even beyond: she actually seemed to feel the presence of Jesus, far beyond what she had EVER experienced. At the moment the Sacred Host was raised high, the Ames family unconsciously joined hands and bowed their heads, unified in the same sensation of being bathed in the love of Christ; in the absolute meaning of His Sacrifice. They became a part of it in a way they did not yet understand.
The congregation prayed, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the Word and I shall be healed."
To themselves, John's family also prayed silently, none understanding why, "Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison (Lord have Mercy, Christ have Mercy) My Lord and My God!"
As John knelt in that dark foreign desert, the enemy's rifle against the back of his head, he continued to sing for God's mercy. He looked up and instead of the Iraqi officer, he saw an image of Jesus reaching out to him. He saw the wounds in His hands and understood the apparition before him. He heard the words in his head and prayed them out loud, interrupting the song.
Jesus was reaching out for him, offering His hand, smiling gently.
John could only say to Him, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. Only say the word and I shall be healed..."
Behind him, seeing the same vision the other captured soldiers continued to sing, "Kyrie Eleison! Christe Eleison! Kyrie Eleison..."
One soldier called out very clearly, "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do..."
In the midst of the war, each man knew peace. And in the midst of life came death.
In the midst of death they were reborn through Christ.
John and his "brothers" never heard the shots and never felt rounds that stole their lives. And the Iraqi soldiers never understood the glow; the mystical penumbra surrounding them as they were born into eternity.
The Ames family learned the next day that John was MIA. They notified the church and activated the family prayer chain. But all knew, somehow, that John was gone. They had felt his sacrifice in that moment in time, during the eternal moment of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
They learned a month later that John was Killed in Action. The military didn't tell her the details: they didn't know most of them. The Chaplin who met with them told her how John was a sort of spiritual leader among his peers, not afraid to live and defend just his country, but also his faith in Jesus Christ. He wished he could tell her, right then, the story they'd learned from a captured Iraqi soldier.
Hassan had been on the firing line and spoke of the POW's singing in Greek when faced with death. He spoke of the glow that seemed to emanate from them in that dark night. It seemed he was the one who held the gun to John's head.
He was not the only Iraqi POW taken from that group to convert. The deaths of the American soldiers had somehow caused the religious conversion of the enemy; especially those on the firing squad.
In effect, the American soldiers had sacrificed themselves for the eternal souls of men who wanted them dead. God called; they answered.
And in the midst of the war, death was not the only way to bring peace.
Kyrie Eleison! Christe Eleison! Kyrie Eleison!