The Inscriptions on the West Facade of the Shrine
(this month, we offer an explanation of a feature of the architecture of the Shrine, which relates directly to the Service on September 10, 2021, when the Shrine was illuminated for the first time)
When His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America led the 20th Anniversary September 11th Memorial and Lighting of the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine at the World Trade Center, he invoked the words of our Lord Jesus Christ and Pericles of Athens.
Most importantly, when the Archbishop paid tribute to the Heroes of 9/11, he said the following:
“Tonight, even as we pray for the departed, we affirm our faith in the Resurrection. We honor those who gave the last full measure. For they realized the words of our Savior:
“Μείζονα ταύτης ἀγάπην οὐδεὶς ἔχει, ἵνα τις τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ θῇ ὑπὲρ τῶν φίλων αὐτοῦ.
Greater love has no one than this, to sacrifice your life for your friends. (John 15:13.)”
These words of our Lord Jesus Christ, uttered on the night in which He gave Himself up for the life of the world, will be permanently inscribed on the front of Saint Nicholas National Shrine, as a tribute to all those who sacrificed themselves, whether on the day of 9/11, or in the months and years afterwards, due to the pernicious effects of working at Ground Zero.
As the Archbishop then inaugurated the lighting of the Shrine, he continued:
“We light this Temple in their memory and in their honor. We illumine this Church because we are also called to be light for the world. And we let this Shrine glow with the glory of the Resurrection, because we are called to be the city set on the hill. And here we are, in Liberty Park, our little acropolis, preparing to kindle the unwaning light of the Risen Christ in our American Parthenon.
“So now, I ask you to join me, to light a candle now, and let us dispel every shadow of the evil that was inflicted here in this place, and took so many of our loved ones. Now lift your light with me to the immortal words of Pericles:
«Κοινῇ γὰρ τὰ σώματα διδόντες ἰδίᾳ τὸν ἀγήρων ἔπαινον
ἐλάμβανον καὶ τὸν τάφον ἐπισημότατον, οὐκ ἐν ᾧ κεῖνται μᾶλλον,
ἀλλ' ἐν ᾧ ἡ δόξα αὐτῶν παρὰ τῷ ἐντυχόντι αἰεὶ.
“For they gave their lives for the common weal,
and in so doing won for themselves the praise which grows not old, and the most distinguished of
all sepulchers –
not that in which they lie buried,
but that in which their glory survives in everlasting remembrance.
“MAY THEIR MEMORY BE ETERNAL!
ΑΙΩΝΙΑ Η ΜΝΗΜΗ ΑΥΤΩΝ!
Invoking the the ancient Athenian who masterminded the building of the Parthenon, standing before a Church constructed with marble from the same Pentelic vein that was lifted to the Acropolis, the Archbishop chose those words from the famed Funeral Oration of Pericles. Pericles delivered this Epitaphios Logos at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE) as a part of the annual public funeral for the war dead. There were many whose bodies could not be recovered, just as on 9/11, many of our fellow citizens’ remains disappeared in the destruction.
Inscribing these words of Pericles of Athens on the front of the Shrine is one more way to connect the saint Nicholas Shrine with both its role as a cenotaph for the dead, and as the “American Parthenon of Orthodoxy” with the Parthenon in Athens; for they share the same stones and in many ways, the same function.
In a remarkable book, “The Parthenon Enigma,” classical archaeologist Joan Breton Connelly noted the similarity between the rebuilding of the World Trade Center in the wake of 9/11, and the construction of that most famous of human monuments, the Parthenon. In the Persian sack of Athens in 480 B.C., the Older Parthenon, roughly in the same spot and yet unfinished, was destroyed in the fires that swept over the Acropolis. She writes of the motivations of Periclean Athens, a generation later, to rebuild the Parthenon:
“[The Athenians] wanted to leave their own children something more than a citadel in ruins, a barren ground zero that fossilized the bitter memories of defeat. It was time to forge a new narrative for the city, one of Athenian triumph and supremacy, a visual tribute to its miraculous rise from the ashes.” (page 84, emphasis added)
A city that had witnessed its own ruin and ultimate victory over a foreign invader considered the rebirth of the place, where the worst had been done, a sacred task. Whether the Athens of twenty-five hundred years ago, or the New York of our own day, the motivation is about enshrining the memory of the legacy of the attack, and the subsequent sacrifice and heroism, in a temple that will tell the tale to generations yet to come. Whether it was the Parthenon then, or Saint Nicholas now, the shared embodiment of memory and triumph is the same.
By coincidence, Santiago Calatrava, the architect of the new Saint Nicholas Church at Ground Zero, was in Athens on September 11, 2001. As he reflected years later:
“Early that afternoon, I was confronted by the images broadcast out of New York. Horrified by the magnitude of the tragedy, I sat transfixed, unable to move until well into the night. Days later, as I walked through the Plaka - the ancient quarter in Athens - the walls of the Acropolis recalled the previous days’ images. The first Acropolis was destroyed in the 5th century BC when Athens was invaded and burnt to the ground. Athens and its Acropolis were rebuilt. The relicts of the original structures were collected and carefully entombed. The columns of the original Parthenon were saved, and reused to buttress the walls of the new Acropolis. To me, these columns link the tragedy and triumph of ancient Athens, and testify to man's innate capacity to overcome such events…. The reconstruction of the Acropolis marked the beginning of the golden age of Greek civilization. Not only did Art, Philosophy, and Poetry flourish, but Democracy, as we know it today, was born. May the reconstruction of Ground Zero encourage us, and our children to such noble achievements.”
Unlike the Temple that towers to this day above the Agora of Athens and the hustle and bustle of the city below, the Saint Nicholas National Shrine stands among the vertiginous heights of commerce and industry that are the new World Trade Center. Tower One, formerly called the “Freedom Tower” and a brief walk from the site of the church, is the tallest building in the United States. And yet, Saint Nicholas rests in an elevated park, a little ‘acropolis’, if you will. And from its height of a mere twenty-five feet, it looks down into the Memorial waterfalls set within the footprints of the Twin Towers. As Santiago Calatrava, has observed, the absences created by the voids of the Memorial Pools are balanced by the presence of the Church. Absence and presence. Absence of those whose lives were lost that fateful day. Presence of hope over adversity, triumph in the face of destruction, and love that is victorious over hatred and evil.
It is perhaps no accident of history that that the Athena Victory (Nike) Temple is the first structure that confronts the visitor to the Acropolis, and that the meaning of “Nicholas” is “the Victory of the People” (e nike tou laou). Just as the Parthenon reminded the ancient Athenians of the price for their freedom, so the Saint Nicholas Shrine at Ground Zero reminds the whole American People that our most treasured freedom is that of religious belief according to our conscience, and that mutual respect for all religions is the only way to live in a world without war and violence.
The words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the words of Pericles of Athens, which will be forever etched on the front of the Church, will ensure that we never forget.