At our Sunday celebration of the eucharist we join with the risen Christ in offering our lives to the Father, while at the same time becoming more deeply the body of Christ as we partake in his risen presence by receiving the consecrated bread and wine in Communion. But offering our lives means offering the various experiences that make up our lives, including, in these days, the wars that inflict countless injuries and leave in their wake such horrifying death and destruction. We do not come to the liturgy to comfortably escape issues like war, or other global or personal issues. Liturgy does not attempt to deny life’s anxieties, but to put them into the context of Christ’s ongoing intercession to the Father on our behalf, and the resulting conversion and transformation that follows from such divine intercession.
What does the liturgy, in its prayers and texts, have to say about war? The question is important, for the answer will tell us some of what we, the Church, ought to believe and pray for in difficult times. The Church’s liturgical books contain a eucharistic liturgy for times of war or civil disturbance. It is interesting to note that this is not a Mass for victory (there is no such liturgy), but a Mass for safety, for an end to war, and for the establishment of peace.
The opening prayer of the Mass tells us what we ought to pray for: “God of power and mercy, you destroy war and put down earthly pride. Banish violence from our midst and wipe away our tears, that we may all deserve to be called your sons and daughters.” An alternative prayer asks for protection from people of violence, and safety from weapons of hate. The prayer over the gifts of this Mass seems to imply, rightfully, that we who pray are a part of the problem, and asks the Father to “banish the violence and evil within us” in order to “restore tranquility and peace.” After Communion we pray, again, that God will help us overcome war and violence, and that God’s law of love and justice will be established.
A number of scriptural readings and two psalms are provided for this liturgy in time of war, full of themes of peace and putting an end to war. For example, the prophet Micah proclaims: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” (These verses are inscribed on the front of the United Nations building). In Matthew’s gospel Jesus warns that “everyone who grows angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” In this same gospel Jesus declares, “You have heard the commandment, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ But what I say to you is: offer no resistance to injury. When a person strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other...”
These texts should never be interpreted to mean that nations should not defend themselves or assist in protecting other nations, but they do clearly mean that peace should be sought out at all cost. It may not be easy to hear our liturgical texts tell us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. In the recent past it was difficult for many to hear the United States bishops write that “We continue to find it difficult to justify the resort to war in Iraq, lacking clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of grave danger.” It is likewise difficult for some Catholics who think war is the answer to hear Pope John Paul say, “No to war! War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity.” These words are difficult because the liturgy and the teaching of pope and bishops present us with the challenge of the gospel of Jesus, who persistently calls us to act out of love, compassion and understanding, rather than out of our natural sense of rage, revenge, or even impatience.