September 11: Life forever changed
By Ginny Nieuwsma
“See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil” [Deuteronomy 30:15].
On September 11, 2001, life was forever changed for Americans when terrorists plowed two planes into the World Trade Center, a third into the Pentagon, and downed another in a rural Pennsylvania field. Over 3000 innocent people lost their lives.
In New York, terror rained from the sky, as each plane’s impact produced infernos of flame and ash and smoke. Paper drifting from the heights of the twin towers showered people on the streets below, mingling with the acrid smoke and the bodies of those who jumped to their deaths to flee the hellish conditions in the buildings.
Americans will always remember where they were on that day. We were sleeping on the west coast when our daughter called us from her college dorm room in Chicago to tell us the news. Turning on the TV, we watched in mute horror as the towers fell and smoke darkened the skies so that the sun disappeared over New York.
Our shock, heartache and anger followed in quick succession in the days to come. The heartbreaking images on our TV screens day and night stunned us: the lingering, noxious smoke, rising to the sky, like devil’s incense; the brave first responders with their masks and equipment slogging through debris piled ten stories high; the notes and photos provided by those desparately searching for loved ones, pinned on a wall in the area of destruction that quickly became known as Ground Zero; footage of funeral after funeral where tough New York firemen wept like children as they said their farewells.
It was a litany of scenes of death and evil. We felt such fear, having lost our sense of security while sensing the horror of the massive number of deaths. Tornadoes and cancer and epidemics kill people too, but on sunny September 11, people were killed by fellow human beings for no other reason than the fact that they happened to show up for work on time.
But there was another September 11 for our family — one that also changed our lives forever, but in a way that stands in sharp contrast to that day of infamy in 2001. On September 11, 1994, two priests baptized our children and chrismated our family of six, and in so doing we were united to the Holy Orthodox Church.
Death and evil. Life and good. The contrast between those two days, seven years apart, couldn’t have been greater for our family. In 1994, our children, immersed in the healing, cleansing waters of baptism, experienced that death which gives birth to life. Saint Seraphim of Sarov says, “The Grace of the Holy Spirit, conferred by baptism in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, shines in our hearts with the inextinguishable light of Christ.” Our baptism and chrismation day was cloudless and filled with sunshine, true; but the interior illumination we experienced that day, as we received the sacraments for the first time, would not be extinguished, not even by horror of the terrorist attacks seven years later.
On that day, we joined ourselves to Christ and began the process of slow transformation from the inside out. In uniting ourselves to Him through His Church, we began to know the meaning of true life. In the Kingdom of God, the power of death and evil really are vanquished as we commune with our Lord and with one another. Who has not felt this, if even for just a moment, when shouting on Pascha, “Christ is Risen!”
How many times prior to that joyous September day had we read the words of Jesus and yearned to know what they really meant? Our hunger and thirst drove our search: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. He that feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life, and I shall resurrect him at the last day; for my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. He that feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in union with me, and I in union with him. Just as the living Father sent me forth and I live because of the Father, he also that feeds on me, even that one will live because of me.”
September 11, 1994, was the day we began to know true safety and security as a family. The sweet-smelling incense drifting to heaven in that humble mission parish reminded us of the prayers of the Church throughout time. She had survived through years of peace and peril, surplus and want, freedom and terrible suppression. We didn’t know in 1994 that, seven years later, the gates of hell would come to us, quite literally in the case of one small Orthodox parish under the Twin Towers! Yet the Church would survive that too, when it came.
Saint Symeon the New Theologian reminds us, “When a man walks in the fear of God he knows no fear, even if he were to be surrounded by wicked men. He has the fear of God within him and wears the invincible armor of faith. This makes him strong and able to take on anything, even things which seem difficult or impossible to most people. Such a man is like a giant surrounded by monkeys, or a roaring lion among dogs and foxes. He goes forward trusting in the Lord and the constancy of his will to strike and paralyze his foes.”
What is security? We all live one heartbeat away from crossing over into eternity, and if it isn’t a random terrorist attack, it will be cancer, or an accident, or simply old age. The antidote to the fear of death isn’t found in extra airport security measures or in heeding the color of terrorist alerts. Our only true refuge in any age is the Church, her sacraments, her community, her faithful witness. This precious and life-giving Ark carries us from birth through childhood, marriage, work, old age and death, into life eternal.
Ginny Nieuwsma is Managing Editor of oca.org.
Saint Nicholas Church: The only house of worship destroyed on 9/11
The tiny Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church which stood in the shadow of the World Trade Center’s twin towers was the only house of worship destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
On Sunday afternoon, September 11, 2011, His Eminence, Archbishop Demetrios will preside at the celebration of a Trisagion Memorial Service at Ground Zero, near the site of the former Saint Nicholas Church. Participants are asked to gather at gate 7 on Liberty Street [between Greenwich and Church Streets, opposite the firehouse].
For updates on the ongoing plans to rebuilt Saint Nicholas Church, please visit the web site of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America at www.goarch.org.
Pray for the Orthodox Christians who lost their lives in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the souls of Thy departed servants, where there is neither sickness, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting!”
Anastasios (Ernest) Alikakos
Lieutenant Peter (Panagiotis) Brennan
Peter Constantine Moutos
James Nicholas Papageorge
Anthony (Tony) Savas
Prokopios (Paul) Zois