The cross in the rubble

Posted: Nov 01, 2001 12:00 AM
In New York these days, you run into a lot of conversational fragments, as big and pointed as the jagged shards of the twin towers' facade itself.

"What about you? Do you think the cross found in the rubble was a miracle?" a friend of mine, who does not share my own faith, asked me recently, somewhat derisively.

Of course it is not a miracle, in the sense that it has an obvious natural explanation. But to the wearied fireman who amidst the hellfire, the rubble and the body parts stumbled upon a field of crosses, it was miracle enough.

For Christians, of course, the cross is the perfect symbol to find in the midst of terror and tragedy. It is a symbol not only of triumph over suffering, but of triumph through suffering -- a reminder of God's promise to us that suffering, too, can be redeemed, and not merely endured.

As New Yorkers discuss how to rebuild, I was struck by the way many artists, in their own way, saw in the rubble the hand of a Creator. Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, saw it in the steel fragment of the facade that remained standing: "Already an icon, it should stand forever as a sculptural memorial ... As a symbol of survival, it is already, in its own way, a masterpiece," he wrote in a moving plea to save the artifact from demolition. A work of art, but who was its maker? Chance, evil and death carved a masterpiece, in Montebello's view, out of ruin.

Alternative views of man's search for meaning and transcendence are an inevitable part of the talk of memorializing and rebuilding the World Trade Center. The city divides, as Guggenheim fellow Deborah Solomon writes, into two schools: "between a desire to reach into the future, and an opposing desire to mourn, to recall, to hold a vigil that never ends."

The memorialists talk of a park, of windswept space, of the need to pay tribute to grief, shock and loss as in themselves sacred things. In The New York Times last week there was a photo that incarnates the party of grief. A car, crushed by the collapse, at Fresh Kills landfill, tagged by the Port Authority for possible use in a memorial. "There is no way someone wasn't in that car," said Bart Voorsanger, one of two architects given this tagging authority. Maybe so, but would he want to be remembered like that?

Walking through the streets of New York, many of us are having conversations on such monumental topics, like this one I had with another dear friend:

"If the terrorists ever get me," I said to her, "do me a favor: Make sure they build the biggest damn skyscraper they can right on top of me." Feelings differ, of course, and I respect those mourners who disagree. But as for me, I would like to think I have done something -- anything -- in my life more worth memorializing than my bad luck in succumbing to terrorists.

The party of grief have all of recent history on their side: From the wailing black wall of the Vietnam memorial up through the 168 empty chairs that commemorate victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, recent public memorials have sought to perpetuate grief, to lock the moment of loss in stone and water forever for history.

But New York was not built by those who found in pain and loss their deepest meaning. Grief is not sacred. Sadness should in time be allowed to fade. Let us commemorate in some fitting way the people for whom this tragedy does represent their finest hour -- the fireman, emergency workers and police who were not hapless victims, but true heroes. And then rebuild something bigger, stronger, better and more beautiful, in the twin towers' place -- as a fitting tribute to the hopes and dreams of all New Yorkers, living and dead.