(Editor's Note: This homily was given by Archbishop Chaput in the wake of the September 11, 2001 tragedy.)
Mother Teresa once said that heaven and hell are not only real — they begin for each of us right here on earth, in the choices we make in our daily lives.
In every act of kindness and self-sacrifice, we can find a hint of heaven. In every black thought of hatred, or act of violence or bitterness, we find the isolation we call hell. Heaven and hell only seem implausible if we crowd our heads with the pictures of childhood storybooks. But if we listen to the experience of our lives, we very soon discover that both heaven and hell already have a foothold in our hearts, and day in and day out, each fights to claim new territory. Each struggles to own our choices and our actions.
This is what C.S. Lewis meant when he wrote, “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every split second, every square inch, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” The landscape of every life is marked by this spiritual warfare.
In April 1999, in the days after the Columbine High School killings, I returned again and again to God's words in the Song of Songs: “Love is strong as death.” It's strange how the most powerful language is usually the simplest. Love is strong as death: Not one of these words from Scripture has more than a single syllable, but each is a stone in the foundation of our hope.
Out of love, God sent us His only son to redeem us; out of love, His son died for us; and in the resurrection of His son, love is stronger than death. God made us for heaven, and heaven is stronger than hell. We can freely choose otherwise, but God made us for heaven.
Last week, in the wake of the mass murder in New York and Washington — “murder” is exactly the right word — I went back to the same Bible passage. I've tried to understand how anyone could justify intentionally killing planeloads of innocent people, including a 3-year-old child, in the name of politics. I can't.
I've tried to imagine the desolation of a heart that could engineer, let alone carry out, the killing of thousands of innocent persons on the ground, each of whom was made in God's image. I can't — and I don't want to. That kind of blackness was made for someone other than human beings.
The events of last week cannot be explained in the language of politics. Any kind of political or religious excuse for such killing is a lie. The murders in New York and Washington can only be understood in the context of the war between love and hatred, heaven and hell, that goes on in each of our hearts and which spills inevitably into the world we share together.
Last week, hell had its say. And heaven began to answer in the heroism of firefighters, police, clergy and medical personnel; in the outpouring of sympathy and generosity around our nation; and in the character of our national and local leaders. What remains to each of us is the choice between love and hate, heaven and hell, in the course we take from this point forward.
Love is strong as death. Love is stronger than death. If we really believe that — and we must — then we'll begin right now to pray for God's mercy to last week's victims, its survivors and our country as a whole. We've never needed His love more urgently.
And we should also remember in our prayers the murderers and the men who sponsored them. May God grant them His justice but also His mercy — for surely they'll need it.
(Archbishop Chaput serves in the Archdiocese of Denver.)