While hearing the readings of the Holy Mass today, on the 15th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, one more time I felt I was witnessing one of those mysterious “alignments” that happen so often when the words of the Mass speak to our own essential inner struggles. In 2001 I had a small one-man systems consultancy in Boston. Since late 1999 I had kept a small apartment in Boston while living most of the time in Central Virginia. It was on August 15, 2001 when I was received in the Church, at London’s Cathedral, the Church of the Most Precious Blood of Christ at the time when Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was the Archbishop of Westminster. I left London for Spain, and after a brief stay with friends in Barcelona and Seville I returned to Boston arriving the weekend before the attacks.
Little did I know I was going to camp at my Boston office for almost a month before returning home. The morning of September 11 while I was having my morning cup of coffee with a friend, a television set was on, someone was watching Katie Couric when the program was abruptly interrupted. The whole world remembers what followed. When the second plane hit I sensed this was only the beginning of a new kind of war, a war I had a brief taste of in my native Argentina during the 1970’s. I cannot quite describe how I felt that morning when terrorist violence cast its horrible shadow over the United States that was until that time a refuge and a place where I could learn, work, and thrive. The wave of violence that now engulfs the whole world reached me at that point. Only a few hours earlier the terrorists had boarded two planes only yards away from where I was. Even the familiar streets of East Boston, the shining towers of the financial district across the bay were fraught with the forebodings of a coming age of blood and tears the taste of which I knew so well.
Today’s first reading is strangely connected to that day:
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14 – And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’“ And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does thy wrath burn hot against thy people, whom thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, `I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.’“ And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people.
My baptism and confirmation in the Catholic faith was so close to 9/11 that I cannot separate both events. I was received on August 15, 2001 and the attacks only made the “before and after” contrast much more poignant. I was a different person then, mostly centered in making money and running a small business. The shock showed me that this secure world I had built could go in the same way the old Argentina, disappearing under a tide of ignorance and senseless violence. In a very short time I realized the importance of ideas and how they serve as the mortar keeping society together or as the sledgehammer that knocks it apart.
One phone call from Virginia blew my mind and sent me in a new direction. It was early Wednesday and the city was eerily quiet. The phone rang, it was a neighbor, a university professor – whose name I will mercifully forget – I heard the tirade in shock: “I am so elated that finally the capitalists have gotten their reward … etc.” In spite of my experience I had always thought that the Marxists in academia were just a bunch of harmless dreamers. That day I began to realize how wrong I was. Marxists were dangerous all right but my own quest for riches and a “good life” was also an idol. Christianity was responsible for building the modern world with all its technological marvels but in the process of erecting this new golden calf, the West was gradually corrupted. Marxist materialism was not only an enemy but also a product of a society that had conquered the world only to lose its soul, a wicked variation of the Roman proverb: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, conquered Greece captured her simple conqueror. The West was now fighting not for markets or territory but for its own soul while at the same time being largely oblivious to the meaning of this new war.
A principle I discovered while attempting to study theology is that “when the Church thrives, the world thrives but when the Church fails the world at large suffers.” I think that principle is demonstrated Exodus 32. Aaron, who is left in charge of the people while Moses is up the mountain, joins the rest in the “brilliant” idolatrous project of building the golden calf. All of that happens while Moses is away talking with God. The disciples of Jesus fall into a milder variation of the same mistake. Peter calls the other disciples and says: “I am going fishing” (John 21:3) but comes back to shore empty handed. They catch lots of fish only when Jesus miraculously appears at the shore and instructs them to cast their nets again.
The period ending with the giving of the Law to Israel is called the Pentecost. That is a model of the Christian Pentecost that comes also after Jesus has “ascended to the Father” in the same manner that Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Torah.
Both Israel and the first Christian disciples default to the familiar when they mistakenly sense that God has been gone a bit too long. The Hebrew make for themselves an Egyptian animal-god, Peter goes back into the fishing business. Something tells me we are making the same mistake in our age. We are witnessing the strange phenomenon of many in the curia trying to adapt Holy Tradition to some kind of living agreement with the growing global Sodom. In my view that is a sign that the Lord is about to come “down the mountain” anytime. He may not be happy to find this new golden contraption. This is just a personal guess.
Psalms 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19 – Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me. O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
For many of us the last fifteen years have been about all we can take without crying uncle. That may seem to some as a failure of the Christian spirit but remember: God can only rebuild what is broken. Moses had to return a second time to the mountain after breaking the Tablets of the Law on that despicable idol his brother had erected. Granite is harder than gold but the tablets were ruined and Moses had to ask for a second copy. That second copy is the Torah we have today. God accepted the broken pieces as a sacrifice just like He accepts our hearts broken by sin to rebuild them into what they should be. Check the words of St Paul to young Timothy, confessing the apostle’s asinine treatment of the Church. Jesus “comes down from the mountain” especially to call Saul of Tarsus. After breaking all that Saul held dear, Jesus remakes him as Paul. Just as in the wedding at Cana the second wine was finer than the first, Paul is a great improvement compared to what Saul was. The Church affirms that at this point Paul’s perfection has been achieved in Heaven, he is a saint and a pillar of the New Jerusalem but he started brokenhearted and repenting, just like all of us.
1 Timothy 1:12-17 – I thank him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to his service, though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
What does Jesus think of all this? The way Christ explains the problem is moving at first, a sheep is lost and found; it is practical the second time, money is lost and found. And then the parable of the Prodigal Son explodes in all its oriental magnificence. The key is love. God comes to the rescue out of love.
Luke 15:1-32 – Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” And he said, “There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, `Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, `How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, `Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry. “Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, `Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ And he said to him, `Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
What was “lost” that September 11 of 2001? What was our “golden calf”? I am still discerning both questions at a personal level but I think I have it clear as far as to what is happening to the United States. Yes, the country has conquered a good part of the world at the usual cost of losing a proportional part of its soul. The crazies did not hit the financial heart of the nation without reason. They knew our heart was there for “where a man’s treasure is, there his heart will be also” and the terrorists knew enough of the American psyche to hit exactly where it hurt the most. They did not care for St Patrick’s in New York, or the National Cathedral in Washington DC. They knew our pride is centered in our financial power and our military might, hence the targets: the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We must think long and hard about that strange revelation because we are a nation of humble beginnings and all the glories and riches accumulated to this day are nothing but gifts from God. Now God has been absent for some time, far up the mountain so to speak. It would be a refreshing change if He does not find a golden calf when He comes down to inspect this land. It would be great indeed if He finds his people waiting for Him with a worthy sacrifice.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.