What are we remembering? I think it’s a fair question. Are we recalling the events of September 11th in isolation? By this I mean the hijacking, the planes flying into the buildings, and the way Americans responded in the immediate aftermath. Is this anniversary only about the events of the day itself? Or are we to call forth each successive event which has defined American life because of those actions? By this, do we remember the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Anthrax scares, terrorism at home and abroad, and this god awful campaign we are forced to witness? If I’m reading the conventional wisdom properly, and I think I am, we’re being told to remember everything. If you don’t remember it all, someone get’s slighted and we’re minimizing the death of someone somewhere. At least that’s what I see.
While I understand both perspectives, I need to admit: I’m tired of remembering. I’m ready to forget a few things. If I never see another body washed up on the shore of Greece, rubble in Syria, or attend another funeral I’d be fine. It’s been a bloody 15 years and too many people have died. I’m sick of being in the business of perpetual mourning and memory. It would be nice to take a year off and remember some other time. No can do. It would be easier to cancel Christmas.
The ability to forget the past would be both a gift and burden. We need the past to have a future. How we remember is the key, isn’t it? Memory is nothing if it’s not a fragile artifact handed from generation to generation. As this holiday (I wince at calling September 11th a national holiday-holidays imply celebration; in remembering our resilience are we celebrating the death of innocents?) approaches, how are we handling the memories we’ve received? Do we toss them around as manipulative tools to win elections? Yes, without doubt. Do we turn the pages of the past so quickly; we assign the wrong meaning to events? The meaning we tender is crucial. Do we understand the sacrifices of the past 15 in terms of a cosmic struggle between Abrahamic faiths? Are we here today because the Islamic world “hates” our western freedoms? Perhaps it’s simply one form of theodicy; we are suffering because we’ve screwed up and God believes it’s time to pay the piper. Or is today an opportunity to love each other in the face of barbarism?
Love is a hard word to say on September 11th. We loved those who we lost. Yes, that’s true. We can talk about love lost, torn, destroyed, and blow into rubble all day long. Will we talk about who we can love today? Like so many who lived through that day, I know where I was when I heard the news and watched the events unfold. I know where I was. We know what we did, who we helped and the contributions we made. We’re great at the past tense. Memory, or in its mass produced version called “nostalgia”, blinds us to the future because we are bound to the past. In telling the world where I was and what I felt, I’m limiting my ability to tell anyone about what I’m doing today or where I’ll be tomorrow. The first disciples, the men and women who constituted the early church didn’t keep returning to Jesus’ empty tomb. Jesus wasn’t there. Hope doesn’t live among stones. It’s gone to seek the hopeless. Each year, about this time, America returns to the empty tombs of lower Manhattan, Shanksville, and the Pentagon. And we wonder why the pain still seems fresh. Why worship death in the face of resurrection? Isn’t that what you do?
Our central act of memory, the Eucharistic prayer called the “Great Thanksgiving”, recalls Jesus life, death, and resurrection. It is a bold statement of the past, present, and future. Within the words where Jesus asks us to remember, we are pulled from the past and death. Our circumstances are changed. We are called to be two things: holy and living.
Does the way we remember make us holy? Have our means of recalling the tragedies of the past 15 years emphasized life or given power to death? It seems, too often, we’re in the death retelling business and that’s good for ratings, wars, and campaigns. I don’t want death to win. Can you remember the last time you felt holy and alive after September 11th?
Psalm 14 takes a pretty dim view of humanity. The Lord, perched high in heaven, looks down on humanity and sees that no one wise or seeks God. We’ve all turned bad. To quote verses 3 and 4, “No one does good; not even one person! Are they dumb, these evildoers?” Not even one person, says the Psalmist. That includes you, me, the Pope, and the Council of Bishops. We’re all indicted for our lack of goodness, wisdom, and abundant dumbness. God has set the bar fairly low for us as we approach this September 11th. Like an old drachma or a stupid sheep, we’re unaware of how lost and unwise we’ve become. We’ll not be found by relying on our own faulty memories. Life does not hide in the rubble, ruins, shopping malls, or tombs. Life has gone fishing, somewhere in Galilee.
I really don’t know what to remember this September 11th. But I do know this: Jesus is not where you think he is. And if we’re looking for salvation solely in our memories, we’re looking in the wrong place.