Heading toward Jerusalem: Jesus and 9/11
We are observing the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. In a recent issue of St. Anthony Messenger memories are shared about a Franciscan priest whose name came to be known around the world. The article states, “Franciscan Father Mychal Judge is listed as victim number one of the 9/11 attacks in New York City. A fire chaplain for the city’s firefighters, Father Mychal was on the scene of the attack and praying for those who were jumping from the building when the first tower collapsed. The force of the collapse threw him backward across the lobby into the escalators. He died of blunt force trauma to his head. The photo of him being carried from the rubble has become a haunting icon of that day.” Fr. Mychal’s funeral was televised throughout the world. It is estimated that over 81 million people watched the funeral.
Fr. Mychal is representative of all those who were running toward the disaster while everyone else was running away from it: firefighters, police, and civil officials. Many of them became victims of the disaster, carrying the scars of that day. Another Fire Department Chaplain, Fr. Chris Keenan, for example, reports having five medical conditions from the time spent digging in the pit, looking for survivors or remains of those who died: cancer, esophagus, lungs, post trauma stress disease and sleep apnea. There are over 1,700 being treated for cancer in the FDNY alone.
One might ask: where was Jesus in all of this? Today’s gospel gives us an answer. Jesus asks his closest followers about his identity. First, who do others say that I am? And second, and more importantly, who do you say that I am? Peter gets an A+ for his deep insight that this is the long awaited Messiah and Savior of the world.
But then Jesus reveals what type of Messiah he is. Not a glorious king or a leader of an army that will drive the hated Romans out of Israel. Not one who has come to get to the top, but rather a servant who prefers to serve those at the bottom. Then his destiny is revealed: Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem, where he says he will suffer, be tortured and humiliated, and crucified; he also makes note of the fact that he will rise again, but that part of it doesn’t seem to register with Peter.
Passages like this remind me of one of my favorite television memories of Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners. In one episode Ralph Cramden, played by Jackie, says to his wife, “Alice, I’m the king around here. Do you here that Alice? I’m king. I’m the king and you’re nothing!” Alice, without missing a beat says, “Right, Ralph. Do you know what that makes you? The king of nothing!”
I think that’s why Peter reacts as he does. What Jesus says about being humiliated, suffering and dying makes him a very strange king—a king of nothing. Or even a king of less than nothing.
And what does Jesus do? He certainly doesn’t back off. He strongly, rather viciously, reprimands Peter and even calls him a Satan who is trying to trip him up. Jesus says that he’s heading toward Jerusalem, toward torture, toward disaster, toward death. He’s not running away from suffering and death; he’s aiming straight at it.
And there’s your answer about where Jesus was on 9/11. Like Fr. Michal Judge, like the firefighters and police officers, he was heading toward the disaster. He certainly wasn’t running away, as Peter wanted him to. He knew that people there needed him every step of the way. It was as if he were being re-crucified that day, not once, but thousands of times. And not only with those were who immediately impacted, but also with their families and friends, with their communities, with the millions of people all around the world who were watching the horrific disaster taking place. No! Just as two thousand years ago, Jesus wasn’t running away from the cross; he was still on it, still being the gateway between death and eternal life, still offering hope, still wiping away tears, still walking with all those who were being crucified on 9/11.
And we can broaden that. Where is Jesus…when someone you love dies? When you receive a diagnosis of cancer? When Covid strikes a neighbor? When you don’t know how you’re going to pay all the bills? When the world seems to be falling apart? Where is Jesus? He’s certainly not running away. He’s with you, with us, meeting the disaster head on and promising that, just as the cross didn’t have the last word, neither will your particular disaster have the last word. Together with Jesus, we not only go to the cross, we—joined with him—go through it.
And in today’s gospel he invites us, his followers, to come after him, with courage and faith take up the cross because, as we sing in the hymn, “it is by dying that we gain eternal life.” We are mortal, which means that in one way or another we wear out, we experience pain and suffering, we live in a less than perfect world. But that’s not all of who we are. There’s a spark if divinity within us as well—which means that there’s an eternal destiny in us. And as followers of Jesus, we are asked to run toward those who are suffering, hold their hand, reassure them, and let them know that Jesus is with them to take them through the disaster to an eternal home.