Christians believe there is life after death, but that does not mean they take death lightly. Like everyone else, they learn sooner or later why St. Paul called death the last enemy to be destroyed. Paul also said that Christians should not mourn for those who have died like people who have no hope, but he did not say there should be no mourning whatever. Although among Christians a favorite image of death is that of dawn and an awakening to unimaginable fulfillment, Christians quite properly grieve for their dead and promise themselves not to forget those from whom they have been separated by death, albeit only temporarily.
In fact, for more than 1,000 years now successive generations of Catholic Christians have had the custom of remembering their dead and commending them to the divine mercy with special devotion throughout the month of November. Those prayers for the departed are bound to be made with particular intensity this November because the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 created such a massive and shattering confrontation with evil, suffering and death.
The destruction of the World Trade Center, the battering of the Pentagon and the crashing of United Airlines Flight 93 in a field in western Pennsylvania were not just local events. Their impact had a worldwide resonance. Two months later they continue to shadow the consciousness of millions of people in the United States and abroad. For those closest to the victims the grief has been immeasurably bitter, because the deaths were so violent and, as far as human reason could see, were so untimelyas though a day were suddenly to end at noon.
In the weeks following the attacks, many Americans turned, as though by a common impulse, to their churches, synagogues and mosques for strengthening and enlightenment. It could hardly have been otherwise. Science and philosophy are no help in dark hours. Lord Bryce put it neatly when he said that no one can be comforted in a supreme crisis by reflecting that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal.
It is likely that all these worshippers, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, were consoled by a certain awareness, however fleeting and indeterminate, of the overwhelming presence of God who is light and in whom there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5), the incomprehensible Absolute, the creator of all things, in whom the three great monotheistic religions profess their faith.
Between God and ourselves, however, there always stands the scaffolding of human thought. Pascal compressed the theologians’ classic perplexity into a phrase when he observed that God alone knows how to speak of God. Christians believe that God has done that most fully in the Incarnation of the Word. The prayer of Christians centers most often, therefore, on the person of Jesus whom they believe to be the Son of God and God the Son.
Under affliction and sorrow, Christians are usually inclined to reflect upon Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, because they believe he brought peace to the world through the blood of his cross (Col. 1:20). They see the cross as symbolizing their faith that suffering can be transformed into victory and death into a passage to a life without end and without tears. No doubt that is why some rescue workers at the World Trade Center stopped long enough to fashion a few pieces of steel wreckage into a cross set up amid the debris.
All the same, even though all Christians at some time or other must recommend consideration of the cross to themselves, no one dares speak easily of the cross to those who are suffering greatly. Few have understood the truth of the cross as well as Edith Stein, a Carmelite nun and a gifted philosopher, who was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1998. She was born into a Jewish family in 1891, became a Catholic in 1922 and a Carmelite in 1933. She was put to death in the Auschwitz gas chambers in 1942.
Edith Stein had, as she herself reported, a decisive experience on her road to conversion. One of her friends at the University of Göttingen was Adolf Reinach, who was killed in action in the First World War. His wife was able to endure this sorrow because she was a devout Protestant Christian. Edith Stein was deeply impressed by that faith. This was, she said, my first encounter with the cross and the divine strength which it imparts to those who carry it.... It was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and Christ shone forthChrist in the mystery of the Cross.
What shines from the cross is the revelation that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that all who believe in him might have eternal life (John 3:16). That is the truth that can steady sad hearts and dry all tears in this November, and at any other time.