A homily on September 11

I don’t write out my weekday homilies beforehand; but every so often I will type them up here afterward, if they seem worth sharing more widely. I used the Mass “in Time of War or Civil Disturbance.”

Today we have the 7th- and 8th-graders with us for Mass. Now most of you are 12 or 13– which means that 8 years ago, on September 11, 2001, you were 4 or 5. The front page of the Washington Post today talks about those who are young enough that you don’t remember the terrorist attacks of that day as your own memory or experience, but now learn about it as a subject in school (article). And so let me say a few words about what made this day so important for Americans.

There had been terrorist attacks in places in the past. But the U.S. had put up safeguards against these, security checks to keep them from happening here. That day, those terrorists pierced through that security. There had been hijackings of planes before; but that day, for the first time, planes were used as missiles to attack locations. And the locations attacked were symbols of American power; and they even managed to completely bring down the two skyscrapers of the World Trade Center. Suddenly, our safeguards didn’t work; suddenly, we were face-to-face with this.

And I would invite you to reflect on this today, not simply as Americans, but as Christians, as Catholics. And let us take that idea of being “face to face,” and imagine what it would be like if a terrorist walked in here, and you were face to face with him– with, let’s say, one of those very terrorists who took those actions on September 11, 8 years ago. Facing such a terrorist, what would it be like? I’ll frame it with three questions.

First, how would you respond to the fervor that you saw in his eyes? For those terrorists were motivated by their beliefs– their Muslim beliefs. Not all Muslims believe and act in the way that those terrorists did; but those men were motivated by their Muslim beliefs about what was true, and what was right and wrong, and what they were supposed to do about it. And if you saw that belief and that resolve in their eyes, how would you respond?

This is an important question when we consider how our secular society in the United States and Europe has responded, faced with that kind of fervor. It has been notable that the secular response has mostly fallen into just two kinds of response. Sometimes they respond with a gun– that is, with military might, planes and missiles and armies and security checkpoints and all that– as if they will simply destroy the fervent man in front of them.

But for those who do not have access to a gun, the response has often been to simply give up; to give in and do whatever is demanded. It has been astonishing to see how cowardly some of our secular society has been– which seemed so bold, so past anything Christian– and then turns out empty in the face of fervor and threats and just gives up. The latest example of this has been this week, when it was announced that Yale University Press, in publishing a book about the worldwide controversy about the cartoons published in Denmark a few years ago, has decided not to publish the cartoons themselves in the book. The secular world has nothing to say to the fervor in the terrorist’s eyes.

But what about Christ? What is his response? What about the saints– including all those missionaries who took the Gospel to lands that had never heard it before, and saw that look in the eyes of those opposed them; and all the martyrs, who also saw that look in the eyes of the government officials or mobs that had come to take their life because of their faith? Christ and the saints that follow him have an answer. They know the truth, in their relationship with God the Father, and so they can firmly say that the beliefs behind the terrorist’s fervor are false. They know what sin is and what it looks like; and so it does not surprise them to see them in the one standing in front of them.

Indeed, they know, as St. Paul wrote [Eph 6:12], that our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness. The man standing in front of us is not truly our enemy; we are not fighting against him, but we are fighting for him, against the sin, the evil, the demonic powers that hold him captive. This is the strong love that we heard about in our Gospel reading. Christ and the saints know this truth, and this action, in response to the fervor in the terrorist’s eyes.

Secondly, do we see ourselves as similar to the terrorist that we are facing? For, as we read about the men who were the terrorists that day 8 years ago, we learned that they had lived in the U.S. for some time, and that they had not lived pure lives. They had engaged in different kinds of sin. Now, how is this possible– that a man could be engaged in sin on the one hand, and yet consider himself morally superior to others and qualified to judge and condemn them? How can these two things go together in one person?

And yet, these two things do go together, all the time. So many people walk around with this contradiction in them, sinning in a hidden way, and yet ready to present themselves as morally superior to others. Perhaps you know sinful things that you do quietly, hiddenly. Our first reading, from the letter of St. James, exposes these hidden sinful roots within ourselves that lead to terrible actions against others.

But there is always hope in Christ that this can be overcome. If we will present these hidden things to him, especially in the sacrament of confession, he will forgive us and give us the grace and strength to transform us inside, so that we no longer walk around with this contradiction inside, like those terrorists.

Thirdly, if you were face to face with a terrorist, then he would probably be ready to kill you. You would be dead very soon. And are you ready for that? Are there things you would regret if you were killed right now? Someone you wronged that you needed to apologize for but hadn’t? Someone you love, like a family member, that you hadn’t told? Perhaps some sin that you needed to apologize to God for, in confession, but hadn’t?

A few years ago, when I was in the seminary, the seminarians headed out for Thanksgiving Break; and two of them got into a car accident that resulted in one of them being killed, and the other severely injured (article). (He recovered and is now a priest in Ohio.) But this made quite an impact on the seminarians; and from then on, whenever it was a day that seminarians were about to travel somewhere on break, we would always see long lines at the confessional, as they wanted to be fully prepared in case they should die that day.

It’s not a matter of trying to scare anyone, but simply of being realistic: it is always possible that death could be right around the corner. Are we prepared for that? Would we be prepared to be face to face with a terrorist?

And so we see that living in Christ really does make us ready to be face-to-face with the kind of terror, the kind of terrorist, that confronted us on September 11, 8 years ago. We have an answer to a fervor in his eyes, and a true, strong love that is far stronger than anything he carries with him. We take care of the sinfulness in us that could lead us down the same path as him. And we are prepared for death, if that is what he should bring. In Christ, there is always hope.


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Published in: on September 11, 2009 at 7:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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