For many years now, I have been captivated by the Roman Catholic church. In fact, I spent much of last fall and winter staying late after weekly Mass to participate in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). Roman Catholicism intrigues me with its structure and hierarchy, much like the military I spent over six years within as a forward observer for the artillery. Like the military, there are things I cannot quite give my “Amen” to, so for now I have taken a break from RCIA, though I am still deeply contemplating Catholicism.
In Catholicism, abstinence takes on a deeper meaning than my mainline, slightly evangelical Protestant background. Abstinence in the Roman church means abstaining from meat, not necessarily sex. Every Friday during the season of Lent, Catholics are expected to refrain from eating the meat of fellow mammals and also fowl. Ancient practices based this restraint on the fact that meat at one point bled, and abstinence is observed on Fridays in Lent as foreshadowing Good Friday. On Fridays, Catholics abstain from their moral proximity to shedding blood in anticipation for the One who bled once and for all, for us all.
Another thing that compels me to consider the Roman Catholic church is the emphasis (some would say dependency) on tradition and liturgy. In particular, I am grateful for the formality with which the Catholic church honors saints throughout her history, especially those who served in the military (as I once did), and even more particularly, those who abstained from shedding blood. In fact, the majority of soldier saints from the first three centuries were martyred for refusing to shed blood (or worship the head of state). March 12th marks the feast day of one such soldier saint, Maximilian of Tebessa. Saint Max would actually not like the title “soldier saint.” In fact, he was killed for refusing the title (well, not “saint,” but certainly “soldier”).
The year was 295, and young Max was compelled by law to enlist. Max’s father Victor had served, and Roman law dictated that the sons of veterans be conscripted. His father reluctantly took him to the local recruiting station, where they gave him the equivalent of a set of dog tags, which he refused to place around his neck, stating
It is not permitted to me to bear the lead upon my neck after [having received] the saving seal of my Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.
Maximilian found military service to be in violation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that violence and shedding blood was wrong. At just 21 years old, he was beheaded for refusing to enlist.
This year, in remembrance of Maximilian, I have decided to abstain from meat as a symbolic gesture to the pacifism he and I share – of abstaining from shedding the blood of our fellows (animal and enemy alike). Of course, Lent is supposed to be a time in which you give up something you actually find pleasurable, and I certainly did not find war pleasurable. I did love my time in the military though; the camaraderie, the sense of purpose, ‘roughing it’ in the field for training exercises, jumping out of airplanes in North Carolina, hiking through the tropical jungle in Hawaii…
But like Max, I found Christ calling me out of the world’s way of doing things, out of the cycle of supposedly redemptive violence. It was a difficult path, the one least traveled that leads to a narrow gate few will find. Those who that embark on that martial journey, like Max before us, face an uphill climb as part of a community that faces social distress (such as substance abuse, homelessness, and suicide) of epidemic proportions.
Christian soldiers wrestle constantly between their faith in God and their service to our country, often thrown about in the tumultuous waters of political sloganeering (what can “support” really mean when purchased for just $1.50 and slapped haphazardly on a million bumpers?). In churches and communities, loved ones remain reluctantly silent for fear of asking the wrong question or wandering into restricted moral territory. I still get asked if I have killed people, and the awkward silence the inquisitor is met with dwarfs the emotional toll already exacted internally by well-intentioned ignorance. But I refuse to let the silence win, no matter how painful reconciliation might be.
With a decade of war behind us, it is time to speak up and listen in to our war-torn warriors. We will make mistakes, but we shouldn’t let the challenge deter us – our love for those who’ve served must conquer our fear of slipping up. For pointers on where to start with the ones we care for who’ve been touched by combat, here are a few credible resources;
Of course, Lent is a time to give up things we love, and nobody in their right mind loves war. But we so often choose silence when it comes time to speak; to our friends and family, to our government, to our enemies. Let’s abstain from silence the rest of this Lenten season, the rest of this year, the rest of our lives. Words can hurt, but they can also heal, and this generation of veterans deserves every bit of attentive care we can possibly afford.
**This is the fourth stop on the IVP Lenten blog tour, sharing posts every Monday this season. Leading the way was Margot Starbuck, Brent Bill, and Rachel Stone. Following me will be Andrew Byers, Valerie Hess, Beth Booram, and Chad Young. Stay in touch by following @IVPbooks or @IVpress on Twitter.