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A National Grief We Know All Too Well

Since before the time of Magellan, many who have sailed in the shadow of the unknown have lost their lives, going unheralded and forgotten except by a few. Even if we remain blithely unaware of them in this distractable age, the Magellans of today are the men and women who tread among the stars – their voyages inspiring the same zeal for discovery as their forerunners on the sunburned sea.

Their achievements, however, have become ordinary to most of us. So it takes a disaster like the loss of the space shuttle Columbia to jar our complacency and replace it with bitter national grief.

This grief seems to be one of the few things that can draw us together as a people anymore – a collective dispossession that touches all but the most cynical hearts. Ever since that grief was born, it has been called upon to heal us many times – amid wars and murders, disasters and assassinations. Most recently, it has met us in the cruelty of 9/11 and now, this.

After the Challenger disaster in 1986, the risks of space flight were burned vividly in our psyches, a looping repetition of fire and diverging contrails. No one who witnessed that scene will ever forget the way their hearts cried out to God. After the Challenger, we came to look at the shuttle program much as we look at tall buildings now – calculating the innate propensity for explosions, or for collapsing with everyone inside.

These risks are real, too. Just as our many fragile wonders can implode to dust and glass, so can the calculus of space flight spin out of control. Then, with all certainty suspended, only blind catastrophe can follow, swift and sharp as a lightning strike on the Texas prairie.

As it streaked homeward, Columbia left its sign of tragedy in the sky, and branded the earth with its painful relics. Though it is nearly unbearable, our country will linger on these mysteries for awhile. We will try to make sense of the senseless. We will grasp for a way to resurrect the bearers of our heroic dream of flight, as if they might actually emerge from the shoals of death and reassure us that all is well, that it was not for nothing that they died and fell to Earth.

But this is for naught. Fire and speed and human fragility have seen to that. Our only assurance is that at the heart of our grief is love – a love born of tragedy, but also of wonder and the silent beauty of the night sky, all resplendent gifts of God.

As believers, we weep now with those who weep, and ask comfort for those who mourn the lost. As President Bush remarked, in a way both ironic and earnest, these seven are not really missing now, but found – embraced by the same Creator who made Magellan’s sea, and who named the stars and set the universe on its ineffable course.

For them, the explorers, there is no longer a quest, no greater voyage left to complete. For us, there is hope – the hope that if we can come together in grief, we can come together in peace, gazing upon the sky we share and abandoning the tools of war. If we can bring one shred of good from this calamity, let it be that.

Used by permission from Mennonite Weekly Review.