Sunday before the Elevation of the Cross, September 11, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
“Nothing will ever be the same.” So went the refrain again and again and again on September 11, 2001, and for weeks and now years following. I also clearly remember Dan Rather just saying over and over again, “There are no words.” Some people called it “the day the world changed.” Almost everyone seems to agree that the 9/11 attacks were a watershed moment in history.
Certainly, there is now a whole industry dedicated to supporting that claim. Books, movies, TV and radio specials, an almost endless array of columns, articles, analysis, conspiracy theories—all these things shout out in a cacophonous symphony playing one melody: “Nothing will ever be the same.” And the rhythm underneath it all is the drums of war. Our armed forces have been sent by our leaders into at least sixteen different countries since those attacks, with varying results.
No matter what one’s views are about foreign policy, military interventionism, Islamic Jihadism, the “War on Terror,” the effect on personal liberties of the Patriot Act, etc., as Orthodox Christians we have a unique perspective on what the meaning of events like the 9/11 attacks really is.
For one thing, a major part of what gave 9/11 such a cultural impact was its sheer scale, that nearly 3000 people died in those attacks, and another 6000 were injured. Those deaths and injuries were indeed terrible, and many stories of genuine heroism emerged in the aftermath.
The impact of 9/11 is also great because it is the first large-scale attack on mainland American soil in living memory. There was a strong sense of vulnerability that resulted from hijacked airliners slamming into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and also downing in the fields of the western part of our state. How could such a thing happen here? I thought we were safe. This doesn’t happen to America.
As Orthodox Christians we have an ecclesial memory of numerous instances when many thousands of Christians died for their faith—the nearly 2600 beheaded with St. Andrew the Commander, the 9000 killed with St. Ia of Persia (whose feast is today), the more than 11,000 killed with St. Meletius the Commander, the 20,000 martyrs of Nicomedia (burned for their faith), and let us not forget the untold millions killed in the 20th century in Communist Eastern Europe. We are a Church defined by martyrdom. We know what it means for there to be a holocaust, a great sacrifice of people for some evil cause.
At the same time, we Orthodox Christians have a strong tradition of facing death squarely in the eye, of not feeling safe and secure and comfortable. Death can take any of us at any time, whether in the sudden immolation or crush of a flaming ruin in the heart of Manhattan or through the decay of cancer or an accident on the highway. Truly, none of us has the guarantee of a long, comfortable life. And whenever that death does take place, our funeral service is honest and straightforward about it, not glossing things over with nothing but praise for the deceased, but a serious and honest confrontation with the horror of death and what its spiritual meaning is.
With all of that in mind, can we say that “nothing will ever be the same”? Did 9/11 fundamentally alter the course of all history?
It is certainly true that 9/11 altered the course of many people’s lives, and not just the ones that have made a career out of the 9/11 industry. Thousands died, and many thousands more will mourn for years to come. But is it true that nothing will ever be the same?
We can alter our foreign policy. We can take different approaches to relations with Muslims and the nations which are their homes. We can choose a different use for our military. We can approach civil liberties differently. As a democratic, representative republic, those things are not unalterable. They do not have to remain the same. But, in a deeper sense, will nothing ever be the same?
I think that such a claim is fundamentally myopic. For one thing, there are many nations on earth where thousands of people have died and continue to die. Such attacks may be a surprise on American soil, but for some places in the world, they have been a way of life for decades. And we know that history is replete with too many great massacres to name. So while we should never impugn the memory of those who were sacrificed on 9/11, we must also take a larger view of our history, of the world in general, and more critically, a larger view of human history.
You see, there has indeed been a moment when nothing would ever be the same. It is not the union of the Greek city-states by Alexander the Great. It is not the Roman Empire’s Pax Romana that stretched from the eastern shore of the Black Sea in the East to Great Britain in the West. It is not the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. It is not the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It is not World War I or World War II. All of those major turning points in human history can and probably will be turned again. Even our American empire will someday contract and then fall.
The moment when human history irrevocably turned, when nothing truly will ever be the same again, was that moment that we are about to celebrate this week in the Church. It is the moment of the death of God.
If you want to know what it is that sets us apart as Orthodox Christians from the rest of the world, this is it: God became man, and God died. One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh. And because God is immortal, when He died as a mortal man, He broke the power of death. And then He passed on the power to conquer death to His Apostles, who have passed it on to us.
Orthodox Christianity is about coming face to face with death, grappling with death, and wrestling it to the ground. It is not about accommodation to this world. Those who prefer to be accommodated to this world will always be utterly devastated by moments like 9/11, because they cut so sharply into the comfortable complacency of a consumerist culture. For them, it is true that nothing will ever be the same. But those who will not surrender, those who will not be defeated by death or by the world that death holds in its thrall, those who have put on Christ and struggle to put on Christ every day—they cannot be destroyed.
Be sure of this: We are indeed engaged in a war. But it is not a war against grasping politicians, tyrannical dictators, or fundamentalist terrorists. As Orthodox Christians, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12). We are engaged with much deeper and darker spiritual forces than even the nineteen Jihadists of 9/11 who set it in their minds to slaughter our countrymen were trying to conjure up.
Because we do indeed live on this earth and in time, we as part of an earthly nation must face the real threats that come our way. But as a heavenly nation, the royal priesthood of the Church, our greatest attention must be on those great spiritual threats, the threats of complacency, of secularism, of accommodation to this world. If we do not remain vigilant, if we do not constantly train ourselves to embrace Christ’s death on the Cross and therefore conquer death with Him, then we will be conquered by death, as evil takes deeper root in our hearts.
If anything, 9/11 was a great wake-up call to America that our comfort and complacency can be shaken by people who have strong wills. I don’t care if it takes 9/11 or something else, but we ourselves are being called upon to wake up, not so much to the temporal threats of those who can destroy bodies, but rather to the destruction that can be wreaked upon our souls.
Is your soul in ruins? Can you look at your spiritual life and say that it is not just “pretty good” (which is not a spiritual life at all!) but truly alive? Today, on this tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, let us remember the suffering and the dead. But let us also remember the path to Life, which is by joining ourselves to the Cross of Christ and thus to His conquest over death.
To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.