Suddenly summoned to witness something great and horrendous, we keep fighting not to reduce it to our own smallness . . .
These are the words of the writer, the late John Updike, as he described September 11, 2001, an event that yielded the terrible destruction of not only one of the most famous monuments of our civilization, but of so many lives, and left a wound on the national psyche that still stings us today.
Updike watched the catastrophe unfold from an apartment in Brooklyn Heights. While many of us witnessed the event through the screens of our TVs, Updike saw it from the vantage point of his apartment’s window. Then moving to the roof of his building, he saw the fire, “the smoke speckled with the bits of paper curled into the cloudless sky . . .” And finally in one of the longest instants of time many of us have ever experienced, those mammoth towers dropped, falling straight down “like an elevator with a tinkling shiver and groan of concussion distinct across a mile of air.”
Updike wrote: “We knew that we had just witnessed thousands of deaths; and we clung to each other as if we ourselves were falling . . .”
We caught ourselves in mid-flight it seems. Reckoning with the loss, grief gave way to anger, and then more grief. Cries for justice. The war-machine of the nation, stirred to life, and the map of the world became so much bigger that we had previously assumed. Our tongues tripped over foreign names and far off places. We witnessed and celebrated heroes—searched for, then dreamed of, survivors. We buried the dead. We cared for widows and orphans. We prayed through all our doubts. We surrendered our illusions. We cleared the wreckage. We wondered what to do next.
And in all of this we were fighting not to reduce what we had seen, what we had witnessed, to our own smallness . . .
Since then there have been many more disappointments. It has been, as if the light that had been shining on our national psyche, has gone out. There has been a power failure of sorts that has sapped our supply of cultural energy.
Everything seems smaller. The world seems so much larger. We feel so much more vulnerable. If those towers could fall so fast, if so few could do such great harm, if so many could be lost in an instant—what about me? What about all of us?
Though we may no longer be falling, we still cling to one another . . .
Christian faith believes that evil manifest itself in two mysteries: the absence of the good, what St. Augustine called the “privatio bonum,” which is not so much anything at all, but an emptiness, a lack—kind of like the darkness we experience in the absence of light. But evil is also known to us as a presence, a malevolence, an entity that has hated us from before any of us were made. Both are before us as temptation and tempter. The temptation is to fall into the illusion that there is something to be gained in evil deeds, that we can take the nothing of evil and makes it into something and in doing so gain some kind of benefit, when there is no reward at all. The tempter seeks to entice us with evil and then insinuates into our minds a dreadful fear that we can justify our hate by insisting that God demands victims.
We shudder at these beliefs and spend, perhaps too little time with them, for the implications of both forms of evil frighten us so.
But this is not, after all, all that we believe . . .
We believe that God, in his greatness, becomes small, like us, and concentrated within that smallness, is a love that knows no bounds. God in Christ came into the world with the express purpose of going into the emptiness of evil and facing down the evil one, and in doing so, assuring us that when all is said and done, it is he—not evil or the evil one—who will have the last word.
To accomplish this God in Christ went into it all—the suffering, the death. It is as if a million World Trade Centers passed through him, and he took it all into himself. Passing through the darkness, he came back to us, and in doing so showed that nothing, not even suffering and death can separate us from him. Despite how things appear, despite how they feel, he is active, working, transforming, sanctifying, redeeming—even in the heart of our worst darkness. We call this the Paschal Mystery. And it happens to us all the time—on September 11, 2001, and every day, until all things are brought to their fulfillment in him.
It is this mystery of God become small in Christ, of love penetrating suffering and death, that reveals to us that there is not just a gaping hole in the midst of that empty space we call ground zero, and in all the ground zeros that have beset us from even before the foundations of the world were laid.
Today we remember those events—the fire, the smoke speckled with bits of paper curled into the cloudless sky, those towers falling straight down like an elevator, the reverberations of the crashing planes that still makes us all unsteady . . .
But that is not all we remember.
We remember the dead, not as lost—but as living in him. We hope in our faith that in all those moments, when a great darkness descends, God in Christ is with us; he has us all in his view. It was for their sake, and all our sakes, that he gave himself to us in his Paschal Mystery. And in that moment of terror when this world gives way to darkness, our hope is that he is there as the Divine Light that dispels the darkness and guides us to that holiest of places, which is his kingdom yet to come.
“Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them . . .”