as presented at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, September 11, 2021
Welcome to this service marking the twentieth anniversary of the attacks on September 11th. I am the Rev. Dr. Colin Bossen, and along with the Rev. D. Scott Cooper, and on behalf of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, I thank you for your presence and participation on this solemn occasion.
Today we will be reciting the known names of those who died during the attacks or as a result of the wars that followed them. In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, we hold that each human being has inherent worth and dignity. We include not only the names of those who died on September 11th, 2001 but also the known names of those who died during the “war on terror” because we understand each person’s death to be a tragedy. The attacks were tragic. They brought on a continuing casacade of tragedies. By offering a space to collectively mourn the innumerable people who have died in the past twenty years we are recognizing our common humanity.
Lamentations are expressions of grief connected to loss brought on by misfortune, disaster, or catastrophe. They are one of the oldest literary genres and most ancient of funerary rituals. In the Iliad we find a lament
Now under earth’s roof to the house of Death
you go your way and leave me here, bereft,
lonely, in anguish without end.
“[I]n anguish without end,” the words come from a wife who has lost her husband due to the violence of war. They describe the incalculable loss and grief that has been wrought not just in the last twenty years but from all the horrors formed of human folly that proceeded it. The words are followed by other[s] that are poignant across time:
we wretches had is still in infancy;
you cannot be a pillar to him
This early text offers us a difficult truth about this hour. We are marking more than the lives of those lost. We are pausing to honor what their losses mean for the children–now grown–they never got to know, the grandchildren who have experienced them only as absence, and all of their friends and family who live with their loss each day.
Such grief, such tragedy, is beyond a single heart or a solitary mind to comprehend. We come together today because we know that by gathering and commemorating the dead we can offer each other solace, express a shared love for the dead and the great family of all souls of which we are all a part, and provide an opportunity for healing for those who have suffered and lost.
Between now and early tomorrow morning we will read the names of more than 26,000 people. They represent but a fraction of the possibly more than one million dead. We are reading the names in the form that we have been able to collect them. We acknowledge that names might be mispronounced and ask forgiveness when they are. Our mistakes should not be taken as lessening the tragedy of their deaths and all that they brought into the world with their lives.
Throughout the day we will be joined by members of the congregation, religious leaders, and public officials. We invite the general public to participate as well, especially as we read late into the night.
We now begin our service with a chalice lighting. In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, we kindle a flame when we gather together. The fire represents the light of truth and the warmth of love that resides within each of us. The chalice itself signifies the way in which we hold each other in community.