September 11... 911 …. Most everyone knows what it means. Here it is, 13 years later, and we are still living a post 911 life. As I was thinking about that, I realized that for many of you college students were between 4 and 10 years old. That means for many of you your memories of a pre-9/11 world are far more limited. You might not remember a time where you didn’t have to get to the airport 3 hours before it’s departure; or when you could walk into Yankee Stadium without emptying your pockets, bags and practically getting frisked - all things that changed immediately after 9/11. And you might not even really recall the Twin Towers as being a part of that NY skyline that we can see right here from campus.
As the remembrances, commemorations, documentaries started popping up over the past week, it’s amazing how quickly memories flood back to that horrific day - particularly for us who live only about 15 miles from where the Twin Towers stood. 9/11 has become one of those historic, life-changing memories that practically everyone can recall "where they were" or "what they were doing" when they first heard the horrific news of the evil that was unleashed.
Those towers, as iconic and historic as they’ve in a sense become, really weren’t that old. They were built in the early 70's and opened in 1973 (the year I was born... see, they aren’t that old!) When they opened they were the tallest buildings in the entire world. It was practically it’s own city - 50,000 people worked there and over 200,000 people would go in and out of there every day. It was so vast that it even had it’s own zip code. On a clear day visitors could see them from a 50 mile radius... you could make them out from Mahwah, Morristown or Sandy Hook... They became a symbol too - Newsweek magazine said: Skyscrapers are an American invention, and the World Trade Center was among the last to reflect something of the visionary ideals of progress and technology that so defined the last century. How high can we build? How high can we fly? Can we reach the moon? We as a nation were dreaming big. The towers were a symbol of grandness.
Yet, in the course of two hours, those twin towers became symbolic of something extremely different: death, destruction, terrorism. Grandness was replaced by fear which changed security measures in our country. Not too soon after the towers were destroyed, people began to openly discuss and debate what to do on the site of the World Trade Center. And it was pretty quickly decided that yes they would re-build - but no they would not rebuild the Twin Towers. The argument being that they had come to represent such tragedy that a majority of people wouldn’t want to visit let alone work there. It’s amazing how quickly that symbol’s meaning changed in people’s hearts and minds.
Today - September 14th, the Catholic Church commemorates the finding of a sacred artifact-- and what was a tragic and heart-wrenching symbol. The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Back in the 4th Century, the Emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine, becomes a Jesus Freak. He's converted. This is huge! At that time, Christianity went from being a religion of people persecuted – where thousands upon thousands of our earliest ancestors were martyred – to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. St. Helena, who was Constantine’s mother went to Jerusalem in search of the holy places of Christ’s life. Upon excavations there, workers discovered three crosses. Legend has it that the one on which Jesus died was identified when its touch healed a dying woman. On this day, they dedicated a Church on the place where Jesus died and for the centuries since, we’ve marked this feast day.
But more than that history lesson, it’s really a feast that calls us to focus on the Cross. We see it as a universal symbol of our religion, but for the earliest Christians, that wasn’t the case. The early Christian artwork (which I was blessed to see on my recent trip to Rome and to the Catacombs) would portray the Good Shepherd (after the parable of Jesus rescuing the lost sheep) as a way to represent Christ and Christians. The Cross would’ve been too horrific for the Early Christians to look at. Early Christians going to attend Mass (in secret) would likely have walked past crosses with decaying bodies hanging on them as a threat and a warning to anyone who dared to defy Roman authority and refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods of Rome. The reality of the horror that Jesus endured would have been all too familiar as they witnessed their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ suffering the same cruel death.
But it’s interesting to see how that symbol’s meaning changed in people’s hearts and minds. While the horror of the cross and crucifixions - the cruel, inhumane, grossness of it was abhorrent, the reality that Jesus willingly suffered that for us, for our sins is difficult to take in. Eventually Christians began to see that this instrument of torture which spelled the end for thousands of people in the Roman Empire and seemingly did for Jesus as well for a couple days before His Resurrection in a new light. Those words from today’s Gospel took on deeper meaning: just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Christians began to recognize Jesus being "lifted up" on the Cross - his suffering, his victory over the Cross as the path to eternal life.
That’s not to whitewash the cross. Which is why in every Catholic Church we don’t see an empty cross but one with the Crucified Christ on it. We don’t lose sight that Jesus suffered and in that, we’re able to relate to him in a very human way. That is one of the great equalizers among all humanity - that we suffer. That we struggle. That we are all carrying a cross.
Are you carrying a cross right now? Is it an illness of someone you love? The death of someone you love? Turmoil in your family? Maybe it’s just being here at Montclair State University - being in a new place far from home - and not feeling like you’re fitting in? Maybe it’s the fears of what will happen after college? There are so many heavy burdens that all of us are carrying, that can weigh us down that represents a cross in our life. Think about the origin of your cross. Is it evil initiated by another or self-inflicted? Either way, it is an attack. And if we were to see those things illustrated as a cross - we’d probably have a complex mix of emotions in response to it. Maybe we’d want to throw it or smash it... Maybe we’d try to ignore it, pretend it wasn’t there. Maybe we’d simply break down and cry.
The cross you are carrying can be exalted in your life and take on new meaning. All that needs to happen is for us to focus on Jesus’ cross. We have to experience and relive that demonstration of pure selflessness, humility. "The Cross of Christ invites us to allow ourselves to be smitten by his love...Only in Christ crucified and risen can we find salvation and redemption. With Him, evil, suffering, and death do not have the last word, because He gives us hope and life: He has transformed the Cross from being an instrument of hate, defeat, and death to being a sign of love, victory, triumph and life. There is no cross in our life, big or small, which the Lord does not share with us.(Pope Francis) God turns our struggles and challenges into freedom and victory. He makes our crosses beautiful symbols in our lives.
When moving furniture, one person always has to carry the heavy end (except for pianos, all ends are heavy). God desires to take the heavy end of the cross, but will we let Him? We think we can take care of it, it's our cross and our responsibility … we have everything we need to "fix" it. That's our choice … will we continue to carry, drag or be completely stopped by our cross as we try to use our limited power, or will we allow God to take over? Jesus' cross is the symbol of victory and that's why it is exalted.
Our cross is not the answer...
But His is.