Christmas Eve, 1941: Sergeant Sidney Stewart was preparing American troops to leave Manila to fight the Japanese in Bataan. Working late in his office, he looked up to find a white-robed Catholic priest at his door. Stewart, a Protestant boy from Oklahoma, did not know it, but his life would soon be intertwined with the frail-looking priest.
"I'm Father Cummings," the priest said. "I heard you boys were leaving in an hour or so. I wonder if I could go with you to Bataan. I'm sure that they will need me there." Father Cummings came along, but once there, Stewart lost track of him.
Then in April 1942, the Japanese captured Stewart's unit. "Yahura!" the guards yelled. "Start moving!" The infamous Bataan Death March had begun. Denied food and water and abused by their captors, thousands died.
A POW camp awaited survivors. There, as sadistic guards lined them up in the hot sun, Stewart felt a cool hand on his shoulder. It was Father Cummings! He was desperately thin, but radiated gentleness. Looking into the hopeless faces all around him, the priest muttered, "I must work harder. These men need me." That evening, the men listened as he spoke of God simply and directly. As Stewart recalls in his book, Give Us This Day, God "became a real presence beside us. We felt Him there."
In 1944, the prisoners were packed into the hold of a ship bound for Japan. Given no food or water, some, driven mad by thirst, cut the throats of their comrades and drank their blood. Events took a tragic turn when American pilots attacked the ship. Yet that night, over screams of pain and cries for water, there came a gentle voice: "Listen to me, men! You must listen to me." And then he began to pray. "Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name…"
Each night Father Cummings, sick and weak, prayed — and each night, sanity returned to the hold. Stewart wrote, "I looked forward every hour for night to come, when Father Cummings stood and said his prayer again. It was the only strength I had."
Finally a night came when the priest was too weak to stand. Stewart propped him up, and he slowly began to pray. "Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name…"
The cries of the men became still. "Thy will be done — on earth — as it is — in Heaven." A spasm of pain shook the priest, and he gasped for air. And then, with superhuman effort, he spoke one last time. "Give us this day…"
His body relaxed, and he was gone. But the memory of his sacrificial love sustained Stewart in the terrible months ahead.
This story reveals the reality of Christ's incarnation. Father Cummings volunteered, giving up everything to serve. He endured pain and suffering with the troops and brought the presence of God into a man-made hell on earth.
Jesus calls us to live His incarnation as well, to bring His presence into jobs, prisons, hospitals, and neighborhoods. By His grace we can follow Him, even into a nightmare of hell on earth, as Father Cummings did. "As the Father sent me," Jesus said, "so I send you."