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In July 2004, I was doing something which, at first glance, seemed irrational. I was desperately trying to get into Iraq, to the heart of the Sunni Triangle, at the height of war. A Catholic Air Force Chaplain at Balad Airbase had to return home to the States to care for his gravely ill mother. The brave troops there were left without the ministry of a priest. There were many delays in my flights, both in Baltimore and for the three days at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, where I continually approached the schedulers in search of a flight. What was most unusual was the burning desire within my heart to enter this place of great suffering, for I knew the troops there were without their chaplain and they needed Christ; they needed the ministry of the Church; they needed the sacraments; they needed a priest. As a Catholic chaplain and priest, I wanted to go to this place of great suffering. Dare I say, I needed to go to this place of great suffering.
I share this story with you humbly, for on a daily basis there are many in our midst who choose to rush into places of danger and distress: firefighters, police, EMTs and military personnel, to name a few. Perhaps the most vivid examples of those who hastened to our rescue were the brave men and women who rushed into the towering infernos of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon ten years ago this September.
As we prepare to celebrate Palm Sunday and enter into this most sacred week of the liturgical year -- Holy Week -- we remember in faith not only that Christ is with us in our sufferings but that Christ chooses to be with us in our sufferings. Christ rushes to our aid, to save us, in the midst of pain and suffering. He embraced the horrific suffering of his Passion to free us from sin and so we would know of his love and care for us at every moment of our lives.
We hear in the 2nd lesson at Mass this Sunday the ancient Christian hymn quoted by St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians (2:6-8): "Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." In this liturgical year of Saint Matthew we remember that God came to us in Jesus, Emmanuel, "a name which means 'God is with us'" (Mt 1:23) and that he remains with us always, "I am with you always, until the end of the world." (Mt 28:20). God never promised us escape from pain and suffering. He promised to be with us. He was true to his promise to such an extent that his sent his only Son to bring us healing and strength and to be our Savior. The Lord is with us in our suffering.
For many us of, our greatest suffering is self-inflicted: we continue to embrace sin. We stray from Jesus and his teachings and find ourselves in a place of distress, inner turmoil and pain. By choosing death on the cross, in fulfillment of his Father's will, Jesus offers us his greatest gift: unconditional love and the constant forgiveness of our sins. He died for us, with arms wide open, so that we might know his healing and peace. In choosing to enter his place of suffering, Jesus frees us from our place of suffering and reconciles us to the Father. He chooses to be with us in our pain, so that we might find true life in him. We experience that life most fully in sacramental Eucharist and Reconciliation.
As we enter into this holiest of weeks, may we do so with a deep sense of gratitude and love for the Lord. As we celebrate the Sacred Triduum and Easter, may we become, once again, a people transformed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. For being with us, his beloved sisters and brothers, is the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Father Erikson is Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia of the Archdiocese of Boston.