For the mystery of iniquity is already at work.
II Thessalonians, 2, 7.
What is it in a human person, any human person, that moves him to go forth on a bright crisp morning as summer turns to fall and tear across the fabric of the world? Why would anyone see all-but-unprecedented peace and prosperity—even if such peace and prosperity were won at the cost of grave injustice—and dream destruction, wish to tear hard-fought order limb from limb, leave loss, chaos and dismemberment behind? Is wholeness so offensive, that the face of the earth cannot bear it, but must scar itself, raking furrows of pain and rage as deep into its own surface as its nails can reach?
I remember the first time I saw history turn. It was November of 1989; I was in philosophy grad school in Europe. I woke up one morning to find my Eastern European roommates staring dazed at the television, as thousands upon thousands of Berliners poured into the streets of their own city, a city they had never seen before. Soon, gleeful mobs were tearing into the Wall with saws, crowbars, sledgehammers, axes, construction equipment—whatever they could lay hands on. The area of desolation between the alienated and opposed worlds of the two Germanys bloomed with energy and life, as tools made for destruction served to heal the ugly scar of a house divided against itself. The rapid rise of new regimes in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and elsewhere, was a foregone conclusion; the later fall of the Soviet empire in its wake was no great surprise. Are all of the people in all of these countries enormously better off now? Some are, in some countries—but that was never the point. It was about what the Wall represented and what the eye could see at the least glance: poverty, ugliness and repression.
The exhilaration was inexpressible. A Polish friend, giddy with new freedom, asked me how I could bear living outside my American homeland. I said what I thought: I had been born like a prince, with an American passport in my pocket, and English prose on my lips and pouring forth from the keyboard at my fingertips. My country was rich, free and safe—and I was its fortunate son, free and even obliged to turn my attention to other things. Leave concerns of empire to those who seek them, I said; the solicitude you feel for your long-suffering homeland would be an inappropriate triumphalism for me and my city on the hill.
Is wholeness so offensive, that the face of the earth cannot bear it?
Then, just over ten years later, came that bright crisp morning.
Aside from the seven numbered structures that made up the World Trade Center complex—the Towers were One and Two—no other New York building was destroyed or fatally damaged in the attacks of September 11, according to William Langewiesche's book , except for one. That one stood at 155 Cedar Street in lower Manhattan, directly across from the South Tower.
155 Cedar Street was an anomaly. Built in 1832 as a private residence, later a tavern, this tiny relic of the 19th Century endured in a district where modern skyscrapers were common and real estate scarce. It was nestled in what had eventually become a parking lot, its footprint covering a mere twenty-two feet by fifty-six feet, and despite its close-set rows of windows and four low-ceilinged stories, it stood a mere thirty-five feet high. This was approximately one-fortieth the stature of the 1,362-foot South Tower in whose shadow it endured and in whose collapse, at 9:59 AM on the morning of September 11, it was engulfed.
No victims were recorded at 155 Cedar Street; an electrician and a caretaker had fled just minutes before the South Tower fell. News stories failed to report on the event until almost a week later. But God chose to be with His people here, as well, where the rage of the nations fell upon this rich, free, safe homeland I thought I knew and owned. 155 Cedar Street was a consecrated church.
My Jesus Christ, King of all, what hast Thou come searching for in Hell? Or hast Thou come to renounce mankind?
"Praises," Orthodox Liturgy of the Hours for Great (Holy) Saturday
Was God present at Ground Zero?—a question asked more than once, and you can see why. How could an omnipotent and all-good God permit such carnage?—or permit the Sudan, the Balkans, Rwanda, Kurdistan, Chechnya... you name it. For most of the world, the Shoah is the hallmark of all of this, and not without reason. God's chosen people—whom Christians and Moslems, the world's two largest religions and 55% of the earth's population, must own as spiritual ancestors, if they are to be honest at all—were singled out for annihilation, and most of the Western world (including most Christians) stood by, or even took part. And this attempted genocide was singularly effective. For those who fail to realize this: Even now, sixty years later, there are only fourteen million Jews in the whole world, approximately two-thirds of them in just two countries—Israel and the United States.
For Elie Wiesel, as for many others, God died at Auschwitz. How can you argue? It's hard to deny, or dispute. For those who believe, indeed, that God has died and is risen, the words ring true, but in an entirely different context. In Constantine's Sword, James Carroll criticizes Pope John Paul II for Christianizing the Shoah by referring to Auschwitz as the "Golgotha of the modern world." To tell the truth, one understands the objection. But what else could the Pope have said? What other name is a Christian to give to a place where God has died? Yes, God was present at Ground Zero. The little church at the foot of the towers saw to that.
God chose to be with His people here, as well. 155 Cedar Street was a consecrated church.
According to the church's , the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas in lower Manhattan was founded in 1916 by immigrants from Greece. That year, the community obtained the already-old building at 155 Cedar and started to reconfigure it for the celebration of Divine Liturgy; at some point, a tiny bell tower, barely more than an arch, was added to the peak of the roof at the front. Services at the church on Cedar Street began in 1922. Information about the church's history over the next eighty-odd years gets a little sparse, though an oblique reference to "Greek shipping magnates" hints at some number of visits from the great Onassis in his time— appropriate, as St. Nicholas is still invoked as the patron protector of ships in danger of sinking.
It's not that New York has any shortage of churches; St. Nicholas was hardly the oldest, nor the most historic. In fact, the oldest church (indeed, the oldest public building) in New York is only fifteen hundred feet away, on Broadway: St. Paul's Episcopal Chapel, dating back to 1766, where George Washington worshipped after his inauguration. Essentially undamaged, shielded by a lofty sycamore that the tower debris splintered, St. Paul's was critical to post 9/11 New York as the place where the message board stood and memorials gathered.
At the opposite edge of the Trade Center site from St. Nicholas and likewise fifteen hundred feet away, is the nearest Catholic church, St. Peter's on Barclay Street, the oldest Catholic parish in the city, dating back to the 1830's. Venerable Pierre Toussant was a parishioner; throngs of New Yorkers of all classes attended his funeral there in 1853, and his remains lay in the churchyard well into the 20th Century. It was there that the body of the N.Y. Fire Department Chaplain, Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, was laid before the main altar, in the presence of that same Eucharist he had confected and administered, the same Eucharist he had offered as Viaticum to a dying firefighter only a few minutes before. The same Eucharist, for all ritual and theological differences, as was offered on the altar that lay beneath the rubble of St. Nicholas at the edge of the South Tower pile.
He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful.
According to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, "in the aftermath of its destruction, very little survived: two icons, one of St. Dionysios of Zakynthos and the other of the Zoodochos Pege [life-giving fountain], along with a few liturgical items, a book, and some candles." The St. Nicholas website includes a photo of the church's pastor, Fr. John Romas, celebrating Divine Liturgy in the church that was; it also shows him at a news conference, holding a battered, corroded-looking cross that was among the few items to survive the general wreck. The priest himself, with his congregation of seventy in tow, had moved across the East River to the Cathedral of Sts. Constantine and Helen in Brooklyn—yes, Constantine the emperor, a saint according to Orthodox hagiography, and an ironically apt patron for George W. Bush's post 9/11 America, with its imperial reach and penchant for Machtpolitik. Indeed, history has turned once more; it even seems always to have been this way. The old is new again, and the new is disturbingly, frighteningly old.
The American dream is haunting the subconscious of the world.
Don DeLillo, Underworld
In the aftermath of September 11, the American novelist Don DeLillo wrote an essay entitled "In the Ruins of the Future." This essay first appeared in the Proceedings of the Modern Literary Association; it eventually was republished, in a slightly altered form, in The Guardian; it is this text that I cite here.
DeLillo wrote of the terrorists: "It was America that drew their fury. It was the high gloss of our modernity. It was the thrust of our technology. It was our perceived godlessness. It was the blunt force of our foreign policy. It was the power of American culture to penetrate every wall, home, life and mind."
The American dream is haunting the subconscious of the world like a mind-control microchip implanted in our designer sneakers and video games, transmitted through the subliminal images of our advertising, television and movies, injected like a drug into McDonald's hamburgers and Coca-Cola, programmed in secret language into LeBron James' leap, Britney Spears' dance steps, Cameron Diaz's smile. The eyes of the multitudes are dazzled and blinded, and in their anger they seek to blot out the sun.
Of course, as much as any other empire, America does not always arrive on the doorstep bearing gifts, not even Trojan Horses. For all too many in the world, America is more about megatons than megabytes. Yet we bear the future in our midst—or do we? DeLillo appears to believe we do; he contrasts the anti-globalist left as a "moderating influence, trying to slow things down, even things out, hold off the white-hot future," with "the terrorists of September 11 [who] want to bring back the past."
It seems plausible—the two forces pulling the world forward and back, the futurists basking in "the utopian glow of cyber-capital," the atavists fueled by "the fire of aggrieved belief." Never mind that the stability-based New World Order of the father has yielded to the preemptive-war driven Bush Doctrine of the son. The agenda remains the same, with apologies to the Olympic motto: faster, stronger, bigger, better, more, more, more. It's just that we're playing on their field, by their rules.
But there's something wrong here—all the more wrong for how right DeLillo is, fundamentally. Such a push-me-pull-you model of history not only gets nowhere, but also uses all its time and strength to do so. Eternally dissatisfied, hungry for diversion, for greener pastures or even for the taste of bile, societies are consumed with restlessness, stirring the pot to make the water boil, milling around aimlessly waiting for the next tyrant or the next consumerist fad. A world this much about change has no room to be about being.
The Eucharist unifies time, rendering present and eternal the death and resurrection of Christ.
Humanity needs to re-learn the present. DeLillo intuits this synthesis, vividly experienced in a moment of noting a young Moslem woman at prayer in a Canal Street storefront, faced eastward toward Mecca, crosstown on the Manhattan grid. He writes:
I looked at her in prayer and it was clearer to me than ever, the daily sweeping taken-for-granted greatness of New York. The city will accommodate every language, ritual, belief and opinion. In the rolls of the dead of September 11, all these vital differences were surrendered to the impact and flash... But the dead are their own nation and race, one identity, young or old, devout or unbelieving—a union of souls.
DeLillo places the present we seek, that synthesis of past and future, in eternity—and in this he is right again. But this leaves the temporal present laid waste, a weathercock for the struggling crosscurrents of time, rather than in any way the eye of the storm. How do we recover the present?
The answer to this, as to all else, is in the Eucharist. In his most recent encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul writes:
[The Church's] foundation and wellspring is the whole Triduum paschale, but this is as it were gathered up, foreshadowed and "concentrated' for ever in the gift of the Eucharist. In this gift Jesus Christ entrusted to his Church the perennial making present of the paschal mystery. With it he brought about a mysterious "oneness in time" between that Triduum and the passage of the centuries... In the paschal event and the Eucharist which makes it present throughout the centuries, there is a truly enormous "capacity" which embraces all of history as the recipient of the grace of the redemption.
The Eucharist unifies time, rendering present and eternal the death and resurrection of Christ. The Mass is the sacrifice of Calvary, renewed countless times a day on the altars of the world:
The Mass makes present the sacrifice of the Cross; it does not add to that sacrifice nor does it multiply it. What is repeated is its memorial celebration, its "commemorative representation" (memorialis demonstratio), which makes Christ's one, definitive redemptive sacrifice always present in time. The sacrificial nature of the Eucharistic mystery cannot therefore be understood as something separate, independent of the Cross or only indirectly referring to the sacrifice of Calvary.
But that is not all. As the Pope goes on to say:
Those who feed on Christ in the Eucharist need not wait until the hereafter to receive eternal life: they already possess it on earth, as the first-fruits of a future fullness which will embrace man in his totality.
Thus, it is not only Calvary, nor the Last Supper, nor even Easter, which is reflected in the unique modality of Eucharistic presence. It is eternity, Heaven itself—and Heaven here of all places, in the very midst of Hell, a marriage stranger still than that which Blake imagined.
Though Thou art buried, Though Thou descendeth into hell, Thou hast emptied the graves and devastated Hades, O Christ.
"Praises," Orthodox Liturgy of the Hours for Great (Holy) Saturday
In two months, on November 9th, Germany will be celebrating the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Most American media may hardly notice, preoccupied as they are likely to be by post-Presidential-election spin, or even the fairly serious prospect of ongoing contentious vote recounts in multiple states. The German media, for their part, were subdued and equivocal in their response to the death of Ronald Reagan—which probably would have been otherwise if the Great Communicator had passed on, say, ten or more years ago, at the time of his 1994 farewell to public life or before.
Down in lower Manhattan, the builders are at work; Daniel Libeskind's soaring, utopian design for a functioning memorial is to be spearheaded by the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower, but also includes, in a green park on Liberty St. by the original church site, a spot for a new St. Nicholas, complete with an interfaith prayer and remembrance center. Mass at St. Peter's resumed in the fall of 2001, and soon, Divine Liturgy will again be celebrated in lower Manhattan. Indeed, Christ is with us.
But what does the presence of Christ mean on this ground?—Clearly, the presence of the eternal in the flow of time, perpetual remembrance and occasion for prayer. But also: In the Orthodox theology of the harrowing of Hell, Christ descends into the darkness of the pit that the powers of evil may be confounded, that Hell which may not hold the Prince of Heaven be forced to relinquish its captives. Christ risen leads the dead to life; as the troparia of an ancient canon of Great Saturday, older even than the "praises" cited above, reads:
Hades reigns over mankind, but not eternally, for Thou wast placed in the grave voluntarily, and by Thy life-giving Hand Thou hast broken the keys of death and preached to those asleep from the ages, being the unfailing deliverance and first-born of the dead.
Hades was wounded, receiving into its bosom Him who was wounded in the side by a spear, and sighs, being overwhelmed by the divine fire, for our salvation who sing: blessed art Thou, O God our deliverer.
Let creation be glad and let all the earth-born rejoice, for the enemy, hell, has been captured; let the women meet Me with myrrh, for I have delivered Adam and Eve, the ancestors of the human race, and on the third day shall rise from the dead.
This, then, is the ultimate search and rescue; Hell has visited the earth, but our Deliverer is at the ready, prepared to plumb its depths and face down its torments (which have no power over Him), the better to obtain our release.
But there is something more. Orthodox theology emphasizes the life-giving action of the Holy Spirit in the confecting of the Eucharist. Indeed, Catholic theology since the Second Vatican Council has taken a cue from the East; the invocation of the "power of the Holy Spirit" in the Novus Ordo Eucharistic prayers follows on this Orthodox liturgical insight. So it is Christ present by the power of the Holy Spirit, it is that Christ who is our redemption and our life, who frees us from the bonds of sin and death and hell and from the mortal darkness that marred the bright morning as summer turned to fall over the city.
This, then, is the ultimate search and rescue; Hell has visited the earth, but our Deliverer is at the ready.
In this light, take another look at the photo on the book cover that appears midway through this article. It is a famous image, the work of the great art-photojournalist Andre Kertesz—and an image made all the more famous by its gracing the cover of DeLillo's 1997 novel
Study the image carefully. In the background, of course, you see the towers; in the foreground, you see the arch and bell of a church. And upward, to the right of the central images, something is flying. It's actually hard to look at; in the aftermath of September 11, it's wrenching to see anything flying in the vicinity of the towers. But when you do look, what you see there, flying upwards, is a dove—symbol of the Holy Spirit, shooting skyward toward heaven, where Christ Who is risen from death and Hell has led His own from the pit of human brokenness to life in the Glory of the Father, world without end, Amen.