Rigidity that is not of God’s making
I woke up early this morning, and left the rectory around 4:30am to walk around the still-sleeping city. I passed empty bars and restaurants, chairs upturned over tables, floors already swept from yesterday’s business. Under sidewalk scaffolds I witnessed numerous cardboard habitats of homeless men and women, sleeping soundly despite the noise of the occasional truck barreling down the avenues. The lights of the Empire State building were extinguished, save for a small ring of orange floods at the crown. Doormen in fancy pre-war buildings sat behind concierge counters waiting out the final hours of the night.
I imagined that similar scenes played out in the city at the same hour 16 years ago. I know I was in the last moments of REM sleep in my Connecticut bed, dreaming no doubt of triumphant teaching in my classes for that day. But there were others who were already awake, executing the last stages of a plan that had been hatched, financed and perfected over many months in other parts of the world. Nineteen young men were on the move to airports in Newark and Boston and Washington, probably imagining glory for their upcoming self-sacrifice. I wondered, as I walked, if they also thought about the lives of the people they would take down with them.
About a week before September 11, 2001, I was in a helicopter flying over Manhattan. The pilot was my friend, Al Cerullo, who is known in the film industry as one of the most skilled aerial film artists in the world. He was taking me on a tour of some of his most famous aerial shots over the city. At one point we circled the Twin Towers, peering inside like birds do at the office workers sitting at their desks, on their phones, walking to the copy machine.
He pulled back on the joystick control and we rose in the sky way above the towers and their antennae. It was a crystal clear day, and you could see all five boroughs laid out below us like it was a three dimensional mock-up of the city I have loved all my life. For the first time I saw it all at once—the Bronx over to the left, then Queens threaded with the BQE flowing into Brooklyn and its famous bridges to Manhattan, then Coney Island to the Island of Staten, and of past the lady in the harbor to the crown jewel of Manhattan right below us. It was astonishing to see it all like that, bridges and tunnels and traffic moving throughout the landscape like blood flowing through a body’s veins.
And a week later, seeing the smoldering ruin from television cameras, I thought of the city and all its inhabitants as exactly that---like a human body, and as miraculously complex and marvelous as God’s most incredible creation, but now injured and pain-filled.
The small-minded and certain truth that motivated the architects of the September 11th attack was at work in the Gospel story today. The compassion of Jesus for the man with the deformed hand was attacked with the kind of dogmatic rigidity that is not ultimately of service to the love of the God who made us all. The scribes and pharisees were unable to see the bigger picture—rising up on a joystick--the God’s eye view of life to which we are always invited. They were unable to let go of their small fears, clinging to an orthodoxy that brings death, not life.
That same orthodoxy of death was at work sixteen years ago, two thousand years after a humble man rose to divinity to enable us to see how God wants us to live with one another, how God the creator of it all wants us to love one another.
It is well worth considering on this day if we also act out of our small-minded fear and see the world through a kind of dogmatic rigidity that is not of God’s making, but our own. It is well worth considering on this day if we are ready to embrace all of our brothers and sisters with the compassionate love that Jesus taught us is more important than anything else.