The Cross at Ground Zero
The Reverend Bill Keane penned this essay 20 years ago after working as on-site chaplain at Ground Zero. He shared it for the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The creaky train wends its way through shadowy tunnels, downward toward the sprawling metropolis teeming with yellow cabs and harried pedestrians. Exiting the underground, walking several blocks, and eventually passing through the main checkpoint, I find the sun shines differently here than anywhere else. It is the light filtered by particulate matter suspended in the air like the hopeful destiny of so many souls turned into the incense and mist of our mournful distress.
The earth around the pit is so permeated by the lingering toxins of ruptured machines that shoes must be washed before entering areas of respite or nourishment—not unlike the religious customs of long ago, still practiced by so many, albeit for different reason. Encircling the gaping cavity wherein the masters of commerce daily trod, now stand the charred and ghostly “edifice witnesses” keeping watch over the empty space once proudly occupied by their taller siblings.
Day after day men and women venture deep into the netherworld of incendiary debris, perchance to recover what remains of their fallen kin. Cleaving to them like an irrepressible aura is the odor of wet smoke, yet far more so they are adorned with the special perfume of heroism that makes their grimy countenance shine brighter than any cold statue of marble or bronze. They are the real Masked Marvels, the enduring disciples of true faith and love. And they are not alone.
There in the midst of the sooty, carbon stained wound stands a Cross—girder of girder, steel of steel, True Presence of True Presence, begotten not made. Within this festering gash of sin it is the preeminent Symbol of redemption, the sign giving testimony that out of evil, greater good shall come. In spite of this place, nay, because of this place, God is with us.
Here, caked in the dust of congealed iniquity is the epicenter of saving grace, the true Ground Zero. In this final resting place of loved ones lost, the assurance of eternal life is found. This unlikely spot, so devoid of material beauty, shines as a beacon of heavenly Truth. It is the soil of an urban Calvary cradling our frailty, yet cultivating our Salvation.
Perhaps more than in any other way, to fully encounter the ash of mortality and grief is to finally comprehend the gift of Emmanuel, “God with us.” It is to behold and be held by a Divine promise, articulated in a Manger, and then on a Cross, that the life to come will be far greater than the life which has been taken away.