Originally appeared September 11, 2016 in The Magazine.
Communion in Hell: a remembrance of 9/11
by Janet Vincent
In those early days after the attacks the stench of smoke and death continued to fill lower Manhattan. Fires raged and cranes pulled at the wreckage. Firefighters aimed hoses at pockets of fire while workers and dogs rode in baskets in order to be deposited deeper into the twisted steal and debris. Remains of the dead were recovered and transported to a temporary morgue just off the site. The ground shook with the movement of construction vehicles and the noise made it difficult to hear the person next to you.
On September 24, I escorted 2 groups of relatives to a viewing area constructed by the city. In the afternoon I stayed on to be with the firefighters and others who were working on the pile.
At about 1:45 a firefighter came up to me and asked what I thought to be an odd question: Is there going to be a 2 o’clock mass today? I’m sure I looked confused so he repeated his question: Is there going to be a 2 o’clock mass today? The second time around I understood what he was asking and thought to myself: You want a mass here? I was horrified at the thought of a Great Thanksgiving celebrated in Hell and said as much: You want a mass here?
Yes, he replied and after a pause, said: You do that don’t you? Well (pause), yes, I do, I replied, but we don’t have the things we would need … bread, wine, Bible, prayer book, or even a place … There’s a mass kit in the tent, he said, motioning to a respite tent, and we can get the bread and wine. Well, whadda ya say, Reverend?
Yes, I said. I’ll say mass with you.
I went into the tent, just off the pile. Sure enough there was a mass kit, some sandwich bread and wine — a rather expensive looking bottle of wine that had probably been looted from a nearby restaurant. They wouldn’t be needing it anytime soon, I thought. The altar was a makeshift table with a bunch of dead flowers on top. There was an altar frontal of sorts. It was a large piece of construction paper upon which a little girl had written: Daddy, please come home. There was a crayon image of a firefighter standing between two tall buildings — smoke coming out of the top of each. Her name was Kate and her father never came home. Those drawings were everywhere. Plastered on every inch of plywood connected to the site and forming peculiar memorials of photographs, drawings and candles. How did they get here, I wondered?
At 2 o’clock 18 firefighters appeared in the tent and took off their headgear and gloves. Their faces were dirty and drawn, their eyes heavy and sad. I introduced myself and added that I was an Episcopalian. Now that my mask and helmet were off there was no doubt that I was also a woman. I thought that might make a difference to what I assumed was a Roman Catholic group. It didn’t. I was there with them and that was more than good enough.
And so we began our Eucharist in Hell. I started with words I assumed would be familiar:
Grace to you and peace from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Grace and peace? How did we ever say those words so easily? I had no Book of Common Prayer but the collect for the Great Vigil of Easter had welled up during the day. It’s the collect where night yields to daylight and death meets new life. It is the intersection of that long service and the beginning of the baptismal liturgy:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church and especially upon this gathering and this place. Let us and the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection through Christ our Lord.
The words seemed utterly outrageous.
We had no Bible so I asked the group to share whatever scripture came to mind and heart. One man spoke of the deposition of Christ’s body from the cross. He said: There were people who took Jesus down from the cross and buried him. We are taking our brothers out of the pile so that they can be buried. We will take the civilians out and return them to their families — as many as we can.
Another man said: Jesus said to love our enemies but I want them all dead. I want to pull the trigger on the gun that kills bin Laden. His voice cracked as he spoke and another firefighter put his arm around his shoulder. That man explained to me: His brother is in the pile. The bereaved man said: I guess I should leave. No, I replied, don’t leave. Please don’t leave. It’s okay. I realized later that I was speaking to myself. I also needed permission to stay because I knew that if bin Laden stood before me I could also pull the trigger.
Another man had a quote to offer from the gospel according to Bruce Springsteen:
Badlands, you’ve got to live it every day. Let the broken heart stand as the price you’ve got to pay. Another guy followed with a piece of another verse from the same song: I believe in the love that you gave me. I believe in the faith that can save me. I believe in the hope that one day will raise me from these Badlands …
I talked about the great caring I had witnessed — gentleness, compassion and selflessness. I quoted Jesus: There is no greater love than this, than to give one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends. Then I quoted from the Boss, same song but from the last verse. A verse I knew they would not quote: [and] it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive (from Badlands/ Darkness on the Edge of Town). They seemed surprised that I had recognized Springsteen and could also quote song and verse. Looking at each other we almost smiled.
We moved on to the Great Thanksgiving as we gathered around our small altar. It wasn’t difficult to begin the familiar call and response of the Sursum Corda:
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
But I hesitated before saying the next part,
Lift up your hearts…
How could they lift their hearts in this place of death? How could I? Most of them had been on duty since midnight. They were falling asleep on their feet. Their lives had been devastated and all had lost friends and/or relatives. They were guilty that they had survived and were driven to claw at the wreckage until forced to go home. And yet here we were, in what seemed to be the center of hell, weighed down by unimaginable sorrow, and I was supposed to verbalize that ancient request.
I struggled to lift my hands into the gesture of what I was about to ask. Belt high was all I could manage. I struggled more to raise my voice beyond a whisper:
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord,
they replied in sad but steady voices.
I continued from memory:
… Holy and Gracious God, in your infinite love you made us for yourself and when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you in your mercy sent Jesus Christ, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us …
And so we continued.
This is my Body given for you. This is my blood, poured out for you and for all.
The bread was broken and shared and all drank from the cup.
We stood in silence for a few moments and I blessed them as my hand shook. They thanked me as I hugged each one and then they returned to their work.
The firefighter who had approached me at 1:45 that day could see what was lost on most of us. He saw the Word made flesh, the Incarnation, God’s impossible YES permeating the rubble, ash and twisted steel. He knew that his fallen comrades had said their YES. He could see into the mystery of Incarnation: that God is with us and for us.
And he responded with his own. And coaxed me to respond with mine, and the others to respond with theirs. That firefighter was my priest. He did what priests and ministers are called to do. He gathered us out of our stunned isolation and grief into a community where we would be re-formed, re-assembled as the Body of Christ. We were created for more than death and revenge. We were created for life and love. We lifted our broken hearts, celebrated the Eucharist and as crazy and as grim as it was experienced a taste of life and eternity.
The Rev. Janet Vincent is semi-retired and living in the mid-Hudson Valley of NY. In 2001 she was rector of Grace Church in White Plains, NY.