1 Thessalonians 13
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
Saint Ignatius Loyola Church at 83rd Street and Park Avenue on Manhattan's upper east side suffered losses in the September attacks. Parents of young children were lost. A young bride married exactly one month was lost. Memorial masses for two firemen were celebrated.
The pastor, Fr. Walter Modrys, SJ, delivered this homily at a parish memorial service on September 18.
In the first reading Saint Paul reminds us that as we grieve, we must grieve but not like those who have no hope. We must hold onto hope, that elusive virtue, that intangible quality that projects us into the future. If we lose hope, we are told, our enemies will have achieved the final victory of their terrorism.
And so we look for signs of hope. Mayor Giuliani has inspired hope and confidence in the hearts of New Yorkers and of all Americans. "'The city will come back even stronger," he insists. New Yorkers, supported by people across the nation and even from foreign countries, have come together as never before, united in their resolve not to allow the crime of terrorism to vanquish this great city.
"Take back our lives," we are told, as an act of defiance and an exercise in bravery. And so the markets have opened, the trading floor is active, regular programing with its ubiquitous commercials is back on TV, Yankee fans like me and the mayor can once again turn our thoughts to Roger Clemens winning his twentieth game and watch to see if Bonds can break McGwire's home run record. There are signs of hope all around us.
But most of all, of course, hope is to be found in the huddled families and friends who are discovering a warmth they never fully appreciated before in a city that suddenly seems dominated by a culture of caring and mutual respect.
But wonderful as all this is, we know it is not enough. It's a brave face we turn to the world, but what's behind that face? Alone, such a stance cannot meet all our needs or survive through all that we have still to overcome.
I'm reminded of the scene last Tuesday. I was making my way back to the rectory, crossing Third Avenue. I saw so many people, like a retreating army marching in columns. Some walking alone, some in pairs or threes. They made their way north almost in silence, a parade without music or cheering — a procession without public prayers. Some stared ahead blankly, turning their heads only at intersections to make sure it was safe to step off the curb. If I had inquired of them, they would have asked in reply, “Are you the only one who does not know the things that went on these past few hours?” You see, the procession reminded me of Luke’s gospel story.
Like Cleopas and his companion, these people too were fleeing the scene of a disaster, making their way to their own personal Emmaus. In subsequent days the whole nation has been involved in that same ‘lively exchange’ that so engaged the attention of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Have we been able to speak of anything else, despite our most recent efforts to take back our lives? Like those two disciples, we have tried to grasp the significance of what has transpired, to make sense out of tragedy, to adjust to a world that now seems so radically altered. We have known confusion and fear and anger, and the whole affair seems quite unreal.
Here we are still. Walking on a metaphorical journey, not sure why we are going where we are going, not sure what we will do when we get there. Confused, troubled, angry, fearful, if not in deep personal grief then overwhelmed with empathy for the victims’ families.
But surprisingly, along this journey, we also have an opportunity to meet the Lord, and to meet him in a very special way. Return with me for a moment to the site itself of what were the World Trade towers. I don’t want to visit again those gruesome images that have forever scarred our psyche. Let us return, but in a very special way. I want to tell you a story.
Yesterday, Fr. Jim Martin, SJ, called me. As most of you know, Jim served for a year on our parish staff and is now a writer for America magazine. He told me he had been going down to lower Manhattan each day to support the rescue workers. Last Sunday he said mass right at the site. There were large plywood boards, he said, scattered about, each with a sign spray painted on it. One sign would say “glass,” for example, to warn the rescue workers what to expect underneath. Other signs would point to the cold water supply to slake the workers’ thirst. And some signs would point to the most heart-wrenching remnants of the tragedy itself.
One sign, Jim said, especially caught his attention. To inform workers of the mass being celebrated, one sign—with boldly painted crude letters—one sign said, “Body of Christ.” In the midst of unspeakable loss of life—the worst our nation has ever seen in modern times on American soil—with nothing but destruction and rubble surrounding it, someone had painted a sign that said, “Body of Christ.” The sign didn’t say “Catholic mass” or “religious services.” It said “Body of Christ.” How poignant and how true.
Where is Christ in all this? The answer, of course, at least the answer we hear in faith, is that Christ is there at the site itself. And in a sense, lying there in the rubble.
The death our loved ones suffered is one more horrible instance in the long history of the human family of an outrageous attack on innocent persons. Once again cruel men have attacked and killed people for no reason.
And that, of course, is precisely what the cross reminds us of in human history. The liturgy refers to Christ as the victim because he was crucified, because he suffered a death that was so unjust, that should never have happened.
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and taling with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
The people who died in these terrorist attacks must now be numbered with all the countless millions of innocent people who have died this way and are still dying around the world, in tragedy, unjustly, seemingly because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and thus were targets of opportunity for some cowardly and demented perpetrators. You see, it is a kind of crucifixion.
And so the sign over the rubble next to the makeshift altar reads “Body of Christ.” What construction worker or firefighter had been so religiously profound and so theologically precise to scribble those words on coarse plywood and hang them there for all to see—right next to the makeshift altar on which was offered to the Father the body of Christ in the Eucharist?
We die with Christ. All of us do; death is like that. But especially when the death is like the cross. When those who die are labeled victims just as was Christ himself. When we visit the scene of these crucifixions, we face an unbelievable challenge as human beings. As we walk away from the scene in stunned silence and then in lively exchange, we have important decisions to make about what kind of persons we want to become, about how an incomprehensible cross will shape our future, about whether we want to be people of hope.
When we are ready to welcome him to our company, the same Christ who was victim, the Christ who was utterly defeated as the object of senseless violence and mindless torture, this same person of Christ will walk with us as the risen Lord. We believe our loved ones whose journey in this life so abruptly ended have met this risen Lord suddenly, almost literally fulfilling the apocalyptic imagery of Saint Paul.
We who remain, like the companions on their way to Emmaus, must meet the risen Lord and detain him in our company. If we are to be really people of a hope that can stand up to such a crushing loss, then we will need to find that strength not just in our obstinate refusal to accept defeat but much more in our faith-filled affirmation of the risen life for our loved ones and the ultimate triumph of God’s love over hatred and violence.
And so during these days and months ahead we must spend moments with the risen One who wants to walk with us.
To Paul’s litany of physical dangers now must be added new threats. But terrorist plots cannot separate us from God’s love for us. Not suicidal hijackers nor planes turned into human missiles. Not collapsing buildings nor dust clouds. In all this we and our loved ones who have perished are more than conquerors because of him who has loved us. Let us walk with the Lord—for many days ahead.
But for now, in this moment, let us pause. We have reached the end of another long and troubling day. Let us join the Lord around his table, recognizing that indeed he is here, in this church, in this city, in our world. And all of us together make up the body of Christ.