Christ the King and the Four Last Things

Today is the feast of Christ the King. It is a celebration of a central tenet of Christian faith: our hope of redemption is in Christ, and our hope for eternal life lies in His Kingship, ordained over the world by its Creator, His Father. There are many things to celebrate about Christ as King. We may in wonder recall His incarnation. We may solemnly remember His great sacrifice for us, the shameful death on the cross. We may rejoice in his triumphant resurrection and the promise that holds for our own future. Or we may consider His inevitable judgment on the Last Day.

Judgment: The role of Christ as the judge of mankind is frightening. We often pray at Mass, “Oh Lord, look not on our sins but on the faith of thy people,” and indeed how much we would have to fear if God justly considered our sins. The exhortations to righteousness found in the Old Testament are strict indeed. Yet the lives of the just are often fraught with adversity. Think of Job, or Daniel. These men were destroyed for their faith and righteousness, and only received in recompense a reward not even fully promised unto humanity until Jesus spoke through the Gospels. Think of the prophets—exiled by their own people for speaking the truth. Think of Moses, whose failure in faith  caused him to be denied entry into the Promised Land.

Jesus exercises judgment in the Gospel that foreshadows the judgment of the Last Day. He tells his disciples he comes to bring “fire and the sword.” Will we, thinking ourselves pious, be beaten out of the temple by our Lord as the moneychangers were? Will Jesus dismiss us, like the rich young man, for a hesitation to give up our earthly goods (despite our diligent following of the commandments)? Are we to be found among the five virgins who wait for their Lord with the trimmed lamps, or among the five lazy virgins who have no oil? And are we keeping our house in order like the good steward? We belong to the Lord whether we like it or not—He created us for himself, and sustains us with His grace; it is His prerogative to judge whether or not we have truly loved Him in our often half-pious, half-kind, and (perhaps) mostly-selfish worldly life.

He clearly communicates these commandments, so we cannot plead ignorance. First, the Ten Commandments were handed to our predecessors, the Israelites, through the prophet Moses. Later, Christ Himself further enunciated their meaning, explaining to the Pharisees that “The first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength, and with all your mind. The second is to love your neighbor as yourself.” Theologians and clergy across all sects of Christianity almost unanimously agree that “your neighbor” refers to all other people, not simply those close to us. It is a provocative statement. How do we love ourselves? indulgently? obsessively? do we “love” ourselves by setting high standards (so-called “tough love”)? Some of us, maybe, do not love ourselves enough. But then how exactly are we to love our neighbor?

Christ provides guidance in the Gospel reading for today’s feast. He previews His final judgment thus:

[He] said to his disciples: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father… For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me… whatever you did for the least of my brothers you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels… what you did not do for the one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ (Matthew 35:31-46)

Today at Mass, emphasizing Jesus’ role as the King of kings, first among all in justice, we are powerfully reminded that righteousness is properly keeping the commandments. Faith, Hope, and Love are virtues to be sure, and without them, as St. Paul writes, we cannot do anything well. Yet simply having those virtues are not enough. We must do good things. We must love our neighbor. When we fail to do so and allow ourselves to fall in to selfishness and self-indulgence–whether it takes the form of avarice, lust, spite, or greed–we are inviting condemnation. Christ calls us to be vigilant against this temptation: we must gird our loins for our journey, purchasing a rod and a cloak; we must wait up for our Lord, even into the second and third watches of the night; we must keep our lamps trimmed. Only thus will we be ready to meet our King and Lord. For “as gold in the furnace he proved them” (Wisdom 3:4), and “the just man, though he die early, shall be at rest. For the age that is honorable comes not with the passing of time, nor can it be measured in terms of years…[it is] an unsullied life” Wisdom 4:7-9).

Today someone close to me died. He was young and promising, and his early death brings to mind these “Last Things:” Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. I grieve for him, and yet I cannot simply isolate the tragedy to him alone, for that would minimize it. John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire to himself… Therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Accordingly, it is important that my comrade’s life and death leave a small legacy in my own soul: his death occurring on the terrifying feast of Christ the King reminds me that I live at the pleasure of God and His providence, and that His coming judgment of me is inevitable.

How much more important now is the impending season of Advent, when I will join with fellow Christians to wait and prepare for the final coming of our Lord as the Israelites waited for His first coming. As I put my spiritual and earthly life in order this year perhaps I will better remember the Last Things and Christ’s imperative to righteousness.

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First Impressions of the “Land Down Under”

During the month of November 2008 my squadron traveled to Australia to support the aviation war game Aces North, held by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). For that month we flew out of Tindal Air Base in the Northern Territory of Australia. It was pretty exciting to see Australia, and these war games offer the most realistic and intense training available to air crews because of the variety of other elements (different airplanes, simulated ground forces, and simulated air defenses) and the lack of a script—essentially, the opposing forces have the freedom to do whatever is feasible to beat each other.

My own trip down under was little disappointing because instead of flying in the Hornet, I rode in the passenger cabin of the tanker. While it was interesting to see refueling from the tanker’s perspective, and while the seats were much more comfortable than a Hornet cockpit, I would have liked to see Indonesia and Papua New Guinea pass by the canopy, and to have flown myself in country (in a manner of speaking). It would have had more of the excitement that comes with a bit of danger, too—we were warned that if we ejected over Papua New Guinea, we should be alert that the vast interior of the island was a jungle where cannibals and headhunters still lived. It was…cool, but also a little chilling. However, I traveled in the reliable safety of a jumbo jet but did mark a significant milestone: I crossed the Equator for the first time. Also, I got to spend a night in Darwin.

Darwin is on the northern coast of Australia; Tindal is about 300 km (115 miles) inland to the south. The tanker I rode carried most of our squadron’s gear, and had to stop at the port city so our pallets could be inspected by AQIS, the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service. Everything was opened up and sprayed with pesticide; the inspectors checked for any organic material like wood, tobacco, food of any kind, dirt, and so on. We had been forewarned of the inspection, so we made sure our stuff was clean and it passed though the inspection quickly. Since the road to Tindal is poor and not very well lit, we decided not to try it that night and found billeting aboard the RAAF airbase at Darwin in preparation to drive to Tindal the next morning.

Our accommodations were terrible—closet-sized rooms with two bunk beds, two wall-lockers, one electric socket, and an air conditioner that would only work if the room key was plugged into the face of the unit. The bathroom area was a separate building, as was the “common room” which had a single television, drinking fountain, and wireless internet available for $8.00 an hour (Australian). I did get to watch Australian news coverage on the U.S. Presidential election, which was amazingly detailed (and optimistic!) for a foreign news organ. Apparently the rest of the world thinks our elections a pretty big deal. Due to the uncomfortable lodgings and the suffocating post-election TV coverage, I was eager to get off base. So, shortly after “settling” in, three of my comrades and I took a rented vehicle into downtown Darwin to see the sights.

Darwin has something of a legendary status among American servicemembers. Apparently the locals are quite friendly (in every sense of that word) to Americans in general and the city offers enough nightlife and sight-seeing to keep tourists interested. As it is only 12 degrees south of the Equator, it is also very tropical. I was astonished by the many kinds and many colors of foliage around the base and city area. Also, much of the base is built on stilts to account for the flooding that typically occurs during the rainy season. Mindful of the early wake-up in the morning, the four of us settled for a quiet dinner–I enjoyed some kangaroo meat, which tasted a bit like steak and a bit like lamb–and a few beers before heading home. Our waitress was also a foreigner to Australia, having emigrated from Scotland, and explained that many Darwin inhabitants are transplants who come to the city on a vacation, or hear about it from friends, and decide to move there. I thought that basically, it’s Australia’s version of San Diego (though it is quite a bit smaller). The most striking thing about our first look at Australia was that it seems like America—despite the different accent and driving on the left side of the road.

The next day we took the (bad) road into Tindal. It was indeed bad—despite being a numbered highway (i.e. part of the core of Australia’s road network), it looked like a neglected country road. There was no shoulder, and the edge of the road was mostly cracked and fissured and eroding visibly in the outback. Potholes were vicious even when filled with gravel, and there were several sections of road that were entirely graveled. I recall only one gas station and repair shop on the way, operated by surly attendant and looking like something out of desert version of Deliverance. The whole journey left me with the impression that the Outback is joke—it really is utterly, truly remote and crossing it is not some inconvenient car ride through, say, Nebraska but a real adventure.

The trip took several hours. Once out of Darwin we were in the Outback for real, where the land is flat, reddish, and bare except for short trees with bright green foliage that seem to grow no taller than 12-15 feet in height. Overhead stretched the biggest, clearest sky I have ever seen—clear blue scattered with brilliant white clouds. The temperature climbs through 100 degrees by nine in the morning, and sunlight feels scorching on bare skin. It is amazing: a bit like El Centro; a bit like Eastern Washington; but hotter and palpably more remote than either. In the late afternoon, the heat produces towering cumulous clouds that make sunsets a riot of color. At night, the temperature stays well above 90 degrees, and the constellations are foreign and confusing. I have not yet identified the Southern Cross; apparently in this month it is very close to the horizon. But it is one of my sightseeing priorities around here.

RAAF Tindal lies southeast of Katharine, Australia, a small town of about 10,000 people. It isn’t a very exciting social scene off base, but the Australian squadrons present for Aces North have so far been very friendly and welcoming. The base facilities are pretty nice—for example, the Officer’s Mess here is much better than a chow hall. Rather than cafeteria-style dining, we order from a menu that usually includes three to four options. The food is excellent and there is always fresh fruit and salad available. The living area is a little more spartan. We live two to a room in prefabricated housing with a shared bathroom and common room. I was surprised to note that the SINGLE bathroom area contains no urinals and the stalls are all partitioned off by full-length doors. This is because there is no separate facility for males and females (which is apparently standard for the Australian military… when in Rome, and all that), so the male aircrew will share toilets and showers with our three female aircrew. Fortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, this has not been an issue – so far everyone has enough common sense and professionalism to spend all their time outside the stalls clothed.

Speaking of bathrooms, I had an odd experience with the bathroom in our classified, “operations” bunker. Our squadron spaces are divided between two bunkers which are buried, and like our living spaces they have co-ed toilets. The first day I was there, I went to use that facility, and after I was finished I realized that there was a frog at the bottom of the bowl staring up at me. He was about the size of my fist and very bright green. It was very startling and not quite welcome, as he hadn’t been there when I first entered the stall. However, I gather that it isn’t all that rare to find animals in the sewage system–apparently the residents of certain areas of base are warned of snakes coming into the toilets (this is especially disturbing considering that the twelve most deadly snakes in the world are indigenous to Australia). And there is certainly an abundance of other, less dangerous wildlife on base: the resident squadron’s mascot is the ubiquitous magpie; there are trees filled with thousands of bats the size of small cats (seriously, they are huge, and there’s no rhyme intended). Those fruit bats hang in the trees by the hundreds during daylight and look like large, unhealthy fruits. Also, there are hundreds wallabies (mini kangaroos) which congregate on the base parade ground during twilight hours.

Despite the exotic nature of our environment, probably the biggest challenge of this deployment is the flight schedule. The first “go” briefs at 0100 (1:00 AM) for a 0300 takeoff, the second “go” briefs at 0600 for a 0830 takeoff. This kind of schedule makes for some odd hours: aircrew flying the first “go” will go to bed at 1300 (one in the afternoon) for a 2300 wakeup (11:00 AM). The missions look to be very tactical, however, as Aces North is the graduation exercise for the RAAF Weapons School (their Top Gun), and we should get some really good training and experience out of it.

There is no doubt that it will be a lot of work, and hopefully we’ll have some time to do some sightseeing as well.