Cross & 9/11 2016
When someone says 9-11 almost everyone in America will know that it refers to September 11, 2001, the day of the infamous attacks on the United States by 19 hijackers who flew two airline passenger jets into the World Trade Center in New York, one into the Pentagon near Washington DC, and one that crashed into a field near Shanksville Pennsylvania while it was undoubtedly bound for the Capitol or White House.
9-11 became a national day of remembrance for our generation just like Pearl Harbor was for the previous two generations in America. In fact, the nearly 3,000 people killed on 9-11 exceed the number killed when the Japanese attacked our naval base on December 7, 1941. The significant difference is that nearly all those who lost their lives on 9-11 were innocent civilians including approximately 55 military personnel who were not engaged in combat operations.
In the last several days leading up to today’s 15th anniversary of 9-11, we’ve heard, read or seen accounts from survivors and witnesses to the attacks as well as from those who worked in the rescue and recovery efforts. One of the most intriguing stories is written by Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post. The article focuses on what has come to be known as the 9-11 Cross. As many of us know, the 9-11 Cross appeared during the rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero, the site of two collapsed World Trade Center towers. On September 13th, two days after the collapse, one of the workers noticed a 17-foot crossbeam, which weighed at least two tons (4,000 pounds), rising out of the wasteland of twisted metal and concrete, in the form of a cross.
Almost immediately, this gigantic crossbeam became a symbol of hope that gave meaning to the suffering, death and destruction that occurred on that day at that site. One of my seminary school mates, who was and still is a priest serving in the New York area, travelled to the site for many days and weeks after 9-11. He said that the enormity of the wreckage was startling but what he remembers most is the distinct smell of human remains on the site. In addition, he said that workers at the site were regularly approaching him for a blessing, perhaps for protection from injury but most likely for strength and courage to do their work in the face of the nearly overwhelming destruction wrought by human evil. That gigantic cross certainly accomplished the same for not only the workers at Ground Zero but for millions of Americans across the country who closely watched and prayed.
The intersection of the fifteenth (15th) anniversary of 9-11 and the Orthodox Christian liturgical remembrance of the Sunday before the Universal Elevation of the Holy and Precious Cross, which is celebrated every September 14th, is no more a coincidence than the appearance of the gigantic steel cross at Ground Zero. In today’s gospel reading we heard John the Evangelist say: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). The reason the Cross has such great meaning for us is that it became means used to bring about Jesus Christ’s own suffering and death, which in turn led to His glorious resurrection that conquered sin and death once and for all.
Thus, the appearance of the 9-11 Cross at Ground Zero showed that God had not abandoned His fallen human creation. Rather, He was there in the midst of human evil co-suffering and dying once again with those whom He loved. In addition, that Cross told everyone that Christ was buried with the victims in the ruble. It gives a deeper meaning to the words the priests say to each other before the Creed in the Divine Liturgy. “Christ is in our midst. He was, He is and forever shall be.” It is Jesus crucifixion that gives meaning to our own suffering and death. We learn from Him the meaning of life as sacrifice. And what greater example of sacrifice do we have than the 343 firefighters and 73 law enforcement officers who lost their lives trying to save the people caught in the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center. Many of these emergency responders did so, knowing that they may die in that effort. Let us not forget the thousands of American servicemen and women who also have given their lives in the wars of Afganistan, Iraq and elsewhere around the globe to prevent further terrorist attacks. Let us not the thousands of victims in the recent terror attacks of Paris and Nice France, Orlando and San Bernadino, USA, and many, many others.
In Orthodox Christianity we have a strong and vibrant tradition of sacred relics and objects. This is why we wear a cross around our neck, not only as a symbol of belief in Jesus Christ as victor over sin and evil, but also as real conduit of God’s grace to give us protection, strength, courage, peace or whatever good thing we need from Him. In the dismissal of our worship services, we always say, “by/through the power of the precious and life-giving Cross”. Just like we ask for the prayers and intercessions of the Virgin Mary and the saints, we ask for the “power” of the Cross.
How interesting that in the crucible of suffering and death many Americans now see the wreckage of the World Trade Center as a relic or relics. After the discovery of the large 9-11 Cross many workers made smaller copies that could fit into their pocket. We’ve heard many stories of how the steel wreckage is treated with reverence and respect wherever it is and used, especially in the casting of the new naval ship USS New York which was christened in 2008. Someone gave me a small piece of steel girder from Pier 5 of the Interstate 35W Bridge that collapsed on August 1, 2007 in recognition of my work with the recovery efforts and personnel. I keep it on my prayer alter in my home, not just as a reminder but as a sacred relic.
I gained a even greater appreciation for sacred relics, sacred space and sacred ground as I reflected on the event of 9/11 and its aftermath and its continuing legacy. Many of you know about the new St. Nicholas Shrine that is being built right next 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero. It will be a Greek Orthodox Church but also a house of prayer that will be open to anyone and everyone who visits there. Do you remember the effort to recover the sacred relics of the altar of the old St. Nicholas Church, the only house of worship destroyed in the 9/11 attacks? Everyone knows about the large reflecting pools at the 9/11 Memorial site and how they are located in the exact place where the Twin Towers once stood. Some people could not understand why something was not rebuilt there. Why was the new 1776-foot Freedom Tower build across the street? Well, it’s because the old WTC site literally became a burial ground for the nearly three thousand victims who died in the collapse. For over 1,000 their remains were never found or identified and most of the rest who were identified only small pieces were found. In fact, the 9/11 WTC Memorial Museum contains a dedicated, secure remains depository run by the Office of the Medical Examiner of New York.
In addition, in the video documentary titled “9/11: Stories in Fragments” (available on Netflix) I learned that “three months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress officially charged the Smithsonian and the National Museum of American History with collecting and preserving artifacts that would tell the story of that day…Fifteen years later, the collection includes more than a thousand photographs and hundreds of objects, among them memorials, thank you letters, pieces of the Pentagon, first responder uniforms from the World Trade Center, personal items such as wallets and clothing, Emergency Medical Technician equipment, parts of fire trucks and portions of the plane from United Flight 93 recovered from Shanksville, Pennsylvania.” The 9/11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero has similar artifacts. What is the purpose of collecting artifacts? An article says, “The objects in the museum’s September 11 collection show both the ordinary and extraordinary moments in the midst of the devastation, reminding us of the chaos, the bravery, the loss and the unity that we all felt that horrifying day.” But I would add that these artifacts are really and truly relics that connect us in spiritual way to the persons and events they were a part of. When we see and touch these artifacts/relics we touch the people directly involved—victims, families, first responders, recovery workers and many others. People gather around these relics to remember and reflect and to pray. This is substantively no different than what we Orthodox do with our veneration of relics of the saints and our reverence for the human body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, especially in our funeral and burial rituals.
In conclusion, as we remember 9-11, especially those who lost their lives on that day, let us remember how one of the greatest expressions of human evil in American history brought about an even greater expression of human good. The former was under the guidance and influence of Satan the great destroyer and the latter was under the inspiration of the Creator of the universe, God Himself. As we see the 9-11 steel cross and we wear our own cross around our neck, let us be reminded that they are sacred relics that have real power to connect us to something beyond ourselves. And let us never forget to take advantage of every opportunity to take up our cross and sacrifice ourselves for the good of fellow human beings, whether that be in crucifying our sinful passions within us, or reaching out and helping those in need, or actually laying down our life for the life of another. Amen!