The news from France, this time Trèbes, was depressingly familiar. A jihadist terror attack, again. A radicalized Muslim man known to police on a rampage, again. Civilians about their daily business under siege, again.
It happens a few times a year, and the president of France, and the French security services, and the friends of France abroad issued their customary statements, again.
Except that this time it was not the same. Something different happened amid the terrorist routine in Trèbes.
Lt.-Col. Arnaud Beltrame of the French Gendarmerie nationale was on the scene at the supermarket in Trèbes. The terrorist had already killed two people, and was holding hostages inside. Beltrame was the right man. Second-in-command of the region’s police, he was a decorated veteran of the French special forces and esteemed by all as the best of the Gendarmerie.
It was an act of both outstanding courage and tactical brillianceThe lieutenant-colonel then offered to take the place of a female hostage. It was an act of both outstanding courage and tactical brilliance. The jihadi agreed to the swap, and so Beltrame was able to draw close, leaving his mobile phone on so that the police outside could hear what was going on. When they stormed the supermarket, Beltrame was stabbed and shot by the jihadi, and died of his wounds the next day.
His widow noted that he died the day before Palm Sunday, when Holy Week begins. In these holiest of all days for Christians, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is recalled, made present again. All that was somehow made present in the death of Arnaud Beltrame.
His widow insisted that his sacrifice could not be understood apart from his Christian faith, nourished by the monks at the nearby Abbey of Lagrasse. It was one of those monks who attended to Beltrame in hospital, administering the last sacraments before he died.
When her Friday morning began, she did not think that she would need a saviour that dayWe have not heard the account of the woman whose life was spared when Beltrame took her place. When her Friday morning began, she did not think that she would need a saviour that day. She was going to buy groceries. But she found herself held hostage by a murderous terrorist. And she needed to be saved.
We might imagine that she desperately thought about how that might happen. Might the jihadi get distracted so that she could make a run for it? Might the police outside manage to take him out with a sniper’s bullet? Might the other shoppers somehow subdue him?
Did she imagine that deliverance would come from a member of the Gendarmerie offering to take her place? That her mortal peril would be relieved by Arnaud Beltrame himself assuming that same peril? That she would not go to an early grave because he was willing to do so?
Did she think, even for a moment, that the man who was ready to kill her would let her go, because Lt.-Col. Beltrame had come? What did the jihadi say to her?
Perhaps: “You may go; he has come.”
You can see why Arnaud Beltrame’s wife, mourning her husband, was thinking about Holy Week. Is that not what happened then, long ago in Jerusalem?
That is what Christians mark on Good Friday. A terrible estrangement between God and man had been wrought by sin, and the wages of sin are death, as St. Paul teaches. And so because of sin we die.
Can that estrangement be overcome? Can the debt of our transgression be repaid? Can all that sin has destroyed be restored? After the fall of man, Christian theology considers the human race to be held hostage as it were, in mortal peril because the reality of death cannot be overcome.
You may go, He has comeThen comes the One who can overcome. Jesus is man, the faithful believe, but also God. And the hostages are freed, not freed by overwhelming power, but because there is One to take their place.
On Good Friday, Christians look to the Cross and hear just that: “You may go, He has come.”
The good news of a Saviour is only good news to those who know they need saving. On that Friday morning in Trèbes, the people did not think they needed a saviour until they needed one. On that Friday morning in Jerusalem, the people did not think they needed a Saviour, even though one was at hand.
Christians celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ because it means that a Saviour has come. Holy Week — whether in Jerusalem or France or Canada — is a reminder that the world needs one.
To all our readers, a Happy Easter!