24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 11, 2011
10th Anniversary of the Terrorist Attacks
I remember. I remember sitting in my Spanish classroom at St. Louis U. High, and hearing the commotion outside in the hall. The bell for class hadn’t rung yet, so we were just sitting there, but apparently, something had happened. A plane had crashed into a building in New York. We turned on the classroom TV to check it out, and were shocked to discover that it wasn’t just some small-wing plane, but a commercial jet, and had crashed into the World Trade Center. This was followed shortly by the news that another plane had crashed. I remember sitting in the room in shock, horror, anger. Especially after the second plane had hit, it appeared as though someone, some thing, had done this in a way to make it as visible as possible, almost as if to taunt us. And I remember thinking to myself, “Someone is going to pay for this. I don’t care who it is, and what we have to do, but someone is going to get what they deserve.”
I wanted justice. And I think when we experience something so graphic and so explicitly hateful in our lives, so much so that we vividly remember the hour, the minute, even the second of where we were and what we were doing when that event happened, we naturally have the inclination to seek justice. Justice is a good thing! It’s one of the cardinal virtues, and basically, means to give to others what they truly deserve. That includes giving to those who lack things unjustly, like the poor, the homeless, the elderly. But it also means giving to those who have transgressed the law of God what they deserve as well. We are called to uphold justice in our world. But often times, that justice ceases to be justice, and is corrupted and perverted into a desire for revenge. As Christians, as Catholics, we are called to more than justice – we’re called to a life of charity, love, forgiveness, and mercy. Why? Because God is the same way. He is a God of justice, certainly, giving to us what we truly deserve, but even more, he is a God of love.
God forgives us a debt that we can never repay: our sin. When we sin, we commit terrible offenses against God. Everything that we have – our homes, our well-being, our lives – we owe to God’s grace and love. And so even small things that we do, like saying God’s name in vain, taking something that isn’t our own, talking about someone behind their back, are all rebellions against God – ingratitude for all that he has given us. And yet, God never hesitates to show us his mercy and forgiveness. He never hesitated to hand himself over, to undergo pain and torture, and ultimately to die a death that he didn’t deserve. That is something impossible to wrap our minds around. It is so overwhelmingly generous and gracious that we can’t understand how it’s even possible. And so that’s the reason why when you walk out of the confessional, after telling God all the things that you know you deserve punishment for, you walk out with a lighter heart, one filled with joy, gratitude, and peace.
But it’s tough for us to do the same. Sure, it’s easy when you’re talking about forgiving someone who just cut you off on Highway 70. It’s easy to forgive someone who is snappy with you in the morning before either of you have had your cup of coffee. But sooner or later, we’re forced to forgive something big, a major offense, a life shattering wound, possibly one even inflicted by someone we love dearly. Or perhaps even a life-shattering wound that we ourselves have inflicted. It’s hard to love others as graciously and as lovingly as Christ – but it’s not impossible.
One great example of this is the story of Cheryl McGuiness. She was the widow of Tom McGuiness, the co-pilot of American Airlines flight 11, which was hijacked and smashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Her husband had been stolen from her by people who claimed to be doing the will of God. She and her two teenage children wept that morning, but she remembered the words of her husband, who reminded her that piloting was a dangerous thing, and that “If anything happens, you have to trust God. God will get you through it.” Almost a year after the attack, Cheryl visited Ground Zero in New York to participate in the Victim’s Compensation Fund set up by the Department of Justice. And as she looked at the crater that had once been the Twin Towers, she fixed her eyes on a steel beam in the rubble, one in the shape of a cross. She knew she was called to forgive, to trust God, as her husband had asked her, but she prayed in the silence of her heart, “Lord, they killed my husband.” She felt as though in standing there at the foot of that cross in the rubble that became her husband’s grave, she was herself also standing at the foot of another cross – the Cross of Christ on Calvary. She could feel herself being invited to forgive those who had done this, but how could she? How could she forgive the people who had committed this atrocity that had imprinted itself on the consciousness of the entire world. How could she forgive the people who had taken her husband from her? And the answer came, “Because I forgave you.” She had a moment of grace and spiritual clarity standing at the ruins of the Twin Towers. She had never committed any act of terrorism, and she had never done anything close to what had happened on September 11. But she had done evil, and by justice, she deserved to pay for that. But Christ had forgiven her. And in that realization, she found the strength she needed to forgive. Forgiveness is that decision to let go the desire for revenge, and give the offender to the hands of God. It’s the decision to love that person as Christ has loved us. We can’t always control the anger that we feel as a natural reaction to an injustice that has occurred, but God doesn’t ask us to forgive on the sheer strength of our will alone. He gives us the strength to forgive by forgiving us first.
And so as we gather around this altar of the Eucharist, this altar of forgiveness at the foot of Calvary, and especially as we remember the events of September 11, let us ask for the grace to forgive. To forgive those who committed those atrocities, but in our own lives also, to forgive those who have committed injustice against us. Let us ask for the grace to love others, as Christ himself has loved us.