September 6, 2011
Skye Jethani: Beauty from 9/11's Ashes
Reflections from my visit to Ground Zero.
A few weeks ago I was in New York City and I visited Ground Zero for the first time. Here is a reflection I wrote later that evening:
Despite the ongoing construction of the Freedom Tower and memorial, it’s hard to absorb that 10 years ago it was a scene of chaos and carnage. This afternoon, like September 11, 2001, was a clear and warm day. I walked though the canyons of Lower Manhattan trying to imagine what it would have been like on that history-changing morning. I couldn’t.
I hadn’t planned to visit Ground Zero on my quick trip to New York. But yesterday I got an invitation from Greg Wheatley at Moody Radio to be part of a panel discussion on his program, Inside Look. The special episode will air around the anniversary of 9/11, and will focus on the events of that day and what’s happened since.
Pedestrian walkways around the site include many renderings of the memorial that is being built. Years of debate occurred before a final design was chosen, but I think they got it right. If you have not visited the website and seen the images, you should now. Most striking are the two recessed reflecting pools marking the footprints of the World Trade Center towers. The waterfalls filling the pools are a beautiful, and eerie, reminder of the falling towers that scar our collective memory. I read that once the memorial is opened to the public on September 12 and the waterfalls turned on, they will run continuously.
Looking at the site, the renderings, and the videos of the memorial I was amazed at how gifted artists and builders have taken a place of death and destruction and transformed it into a place of beauty. But it’s more than just beautiful–it’s also painful. It’s a beauty with memory. Ground Zero will never be a place of amusement–the forgetful and frivolous beauty the spouts from amnesia. It will be a place where beauty provides the safety for us to welcome painful memories back into our conscience without being afraid.
I’m reminded of Jesus’ appearing to his disciples after the resurrection, his body transformed and glorified. He is different, healed, and beautiful. But the scars on his hands and side remain. He invites Thomas to see, touch, examine. At the crucifixion doing so would have been unthinkable–the scene too evil and the fear too near. But amid the beauty of the resurrection, Jesus’ friends are invited to consider the brutality of the cross again and see it in a new light.
I left Ground Zero and soon found myself walking along the iron fence surrounding Trinity Episcopal Church and St. Paul’s Chapel–the building where George Washington worshiped and where 9/11 responders received care and rest. Like many old churches, the courtyard is filled with grave markers dating back to the 18th century. I wonder when churches stopped burying people on their properties? I imagine we would worship differently if we had to walk through a graveyard each Sunday.
Being reminded of the “great cloud of witnesses” that have faithful run the race before us, and remembering that we will soon join them, may not be a bad way to start our times together. Like the 9/11 memorial, I was struck by the church courtyard’s intermingling of pain and beauty. The trees, grass, and soaring architecture coexisted with the tombstones. Again, it was a safe place to recall our losses and yet be stirred with hope.
It’s late, and I don’t have any profound intent for this blog post. (And since I’ve been awake since 3:50 a.m. I don’t plan to stay up any later in the hope that one will come.) Except that I find myself grateful for beauty…that in this broken and often evil world God has left enough of his own beauty to give us hope…and that he has endowed his image-bearers with the ongoing ability, however flawed, to still make beauty from ashes.