“One can easily understand a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” — Plato
From my rooftop in Harlem you can always see the lights of Midtown at night: the steady red eyes of Mt. Sinai Hospital, the blinking one on the spire of the Empire State Building. Some evenings you can watch the moon as it pops above the housing projects of the South Bronx, and if you’re lucky, you can sometimes make out a handful of constellations, those silent reminders of eternity high overhead. Mostly, though, the sky is dominated by an endless procession of jets and planes, and the occasional NYPD chopper clattering by on some unknown urgent mission.
Last night there was something else: a powerful twin beam rising from Ground Zero. Reaching higher and brighter than anything else, and merging into one column before it dissipated, it lasted about five minutes, then suddenly went dead—probably a practice run for the fifth anniversary of 9/11.
Despite the noblest attempts to turn the date into a symbol of national unity and patriotism, the real legacy of 9/11 is fear.
The annual “Tribute in Light” is surely the most impressive way of commemorating the collapse of the Twin Towers—and there are hundreds of others. For weeks, every paper in the region has been listing upcoming services and dinners, concerts and candlelight vigils, peace walks and art shows and tree plantings and readings. But despite the noblest, most heartfelt attempts to turn the date into a symbol of national unity, a day for patriotism and community and remembering fallen heroes, the real legacy of 9/11 is fear.
In public, of course, the day will be marked by wreaths, flags, and yellow ribbons, and by taps, bagpipers, and military fly-by’s. Privately, it will unleash new waves of anger and grief, and conjure up the same nightmarish images that stopped our hearts five years ago and set off a national panic that still hasn’t subsided: a packed passenger jet slamming into a gleaming office tower. A hellish firestorm of yellow flames, black clouds, billowing dust, and flying masonry. Bodies plummeting past pristine glass window-walls to an ugly death on the pavement far below.
Yes, they promised us the world would never be the same. But who knew how much it would change? Who knew that for millions of Americans, a low-flying plane would be enough to bring on a cold sweat? That a passenger at JFK could be detained because of a “political” T-shirt? That the discovery of an unmarked bottle of fruit juice could halt an entire subway line? Who knew that, in the “land of the free,” the dull gnawing of low-level anxiety—and in many instances, the sort of outright paranoia not seen since the McCarthy Era—would become a daily reality?
One Hundred Days to Christmas is something my wife and I and our children celebrate every year.
That’s 9-11. But there’s another date in September that bears thinking about: September 16, which is one hundred days before Christmas. A little-known tradition that originated in northern Europe, where the autumn suns sets earlier and the winter cold comes sooner than it does here, One Hundred Days to Christmas is something my wife and I and our children celebrate every year (as do many of our friends) and centers around as many candles as we can fit on the kitchen table and our window sills. We’ll have food too, and something hot to drink, and everyone suggests his or her favorite carol.
If you don’t celebrate Christmas, or do, but find the holiday season too commercialized and kitschy and long-drawn-out as it is, the idea of singing carols in September might put you off. But if you think about what Christmas really means—light coming into darkness, and hope into gloom—it makes perfect sense to anticipate it more than a few weeks in advance.
In a way, such a celebration is the best antidote to 9/11, and to our government’s insistence that we live in a state of perpetual fear. By recalling the angel’s ancient message—“Fear not; I bring you good tidings of great joy!”— it reminds us of the universal human longing for an end to war, and of the only way that longing can really be answered: by the coming of the Prince of Peace.
Christ’s light doesn’t beam upward from a labyrinth of steel and concrete, but illumines every heart that receives him, and burns with an oil that will never ever go out. Even though invisible, it is powerful enough to heal the deepest wound, to strengthen the weakest limb, to overcome the worst fear.
Christ alone is the true light of peace.
Christ alone is the true light of peace. He doesn’t promise victory in the War on Terror. He won’t secure our borders, or guarantee safer skies and streets. But he offers far more: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you, though not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”