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A Homily on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, Three Days after September 11, 2001

Numbers 21: 4-9
Psalm 78: 1-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38.
Philippians 2:6-11
John 3:13-17


With their patience worn out, the people complained against God. Why have you brought us to this desert? Why do you give us this food, this drink? We are disgusted at this wretched food and drink. Why have you allowed this to happen? How could you permit so much suffering? All these stories of calamity, of family members and friends dying. In class yesterday, fifteen or so people spoke of people they know who have been injured or killed. At Dillon Hall during Mass last night at the University of Notre Dame, the same was true. A friend and seminary-classmate of mine, Neil Hyland, was killed in the attack on the Pentagon on Tuesday.

Why have you brought us here to this desert?

And so our patience wears out.

Evidence of such impatience appears in this week’s Time Magazine. In a piece entitled “Day of Infamy,” Mr. Lance Morrow makes the case “for rage and retribution.” He says, “Let’s have no grief counselors,” lest we feel better about things too quickly. And let’s have “no fatuous rhetoric about healing,” which he says is “inappropriate now and dangerous. There will be time later for the tears of misfortune.” No, Mr. Morrow says, “Let’s have rage.” He argues that “a day cannot live in infamy without the nourishment of rage. What’s needed is a unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury-a ruthless indignation” that won’t wear off in a week or two. “Let America explore the reciprocal possibilities of the fatwa,” he says, which will require “focused brutality. . . America needs to relearn a lost discipline, self-confident relentlessness-and to relearn why human nature has equipped us with a weapon . . . called hatred.”

Patience has worn out. People are complaining against God. They defy God. They deny God.

In our churches too, we can hear words that defy God, deny God. “This nation is peace, but fierce when stirred to anger. . . Our unity is a kinship of grief and a steadfast resolve to prevail against our enemies.” These words, spoken by President Bush at the National Cathredral, are words of carefully controlled rage. The shift from shared grief to a shared resolve to “prevail against our enemies” is designed to unite this nation in support of the terror that is to come. Make no mistake about it. Whatever is meant by the phrase “prevail against our enemies,” we can sure what it does not mean. It does not mean, in the words of yesterday’s Gospel, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you.”

And so it is with so many in this nation, calling us not to love our enemies, but to hate them. They do as the pagans do.

These men who planned and carried out this horrible crime worship a warrior god. Those in this country who are commending to us rage, vengeance, or (less provoca-tively) “steely resolve”-they too worship a warrior god. And in both cases, it is not the God and Father of Jesus Christ.

When one calls for retaliation, as Billy Graham did today in the so-called prayer service in Washington, D.C., and then in the same breath says (in effect), “Jesus Christ is Lord”-that is a lie. . .

For Jesus humbled himself and took the form of a slave, obediently accepted even death, death on a cross, and by that cross forged a way of peace, and called his disciples to walk along that way, the way of the cross, the way of peace. It is not a way of retaliation. And in these days of high rhetoric and big talk about settling things, it is a way that dons no flags, joins no national tribalisms, affirms no imperial resolutions, and takes no lives in return. It is a way of true prayer, a way of mercy, a way of reaching our in friendship, especially to our Arab brothers and sisters, in this land and abroad.

It is a way of healing. And, contrary to Mr. Morrow of Time Magazine, we do need healing. We do need our wounds to be salved. We need salvation.

With all this complaining against God, we are in a desert, and in this desert we need the Cross lifted up before us, in triumph, so that we may know the path of life, of life in Jesus Christ, to whom, alone, be power and glory, now, and until the end of the ages. Amen.

Fr. Baxter is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and a Catholic Worker.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXI, No. 6, November 2001.