"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"That They May Become One in Your Hand"


Chair of St. Peter

Today is the first day of the 101st Church Unity Octave, or "Week of prayer for Christian unity". January 18th was chosen as the first day of the Octave because it was one of the two feast days of the Chair of St. Peter, the other being February 22. (For an explanation of the three-fold relation of the chair, ecclesial unity and the name of this blog, see my post from this day last year.) This year's theme is "That They May Become One In Your Hand", drawn from Ezekiel 37:17, where the prophet shows God's power to reunite Israel and Judah. The first meditation for this week can be found here.

There we recall that while division, quarreling, strife and separation characterize the city of man (i.e. fallen man separated from Christ) on account of his self-worship and narcissism, it is not to be so among those within the city of God (i.e. those united to Christ). The divine life of the Most Holy Trinity is a life of perfect unity and peace. This divine life is the new life we receive at baptism, for we are baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A name, as Plato points out in his Cratylus, is a sign of the essence. And this is why unity is one of the four enduring marks of the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" we speak of in the Nicene Creed, for her members are baptized into this divine life of perfect unity. Disunity among Christians always therefore in some respect involves movement away from the Church, and thus away from Christ.

Before us now, if we look with the eyes of men, stands a bleak ecumenical landscape. Seemingly only a small percentage of Christians are consciously aware of our disunity as disunity. Many Christians now seem to think that the present state of denominational divisions is natural, or unavoidable until Christ returns, a kind of necessary evil that we must simply put up with until then. Some even think these divisions are "healthy". Someone recently said to me, "I'm very glad for all these divisions. It means that no one has a monopoly on truth. Competition is good for the Church." To this person, the alternative account, namely, that these various sects and divisions are schisms from the Church, and thus separated in some sense from the life and truth of Christ, was literally inconceivable.

When evil is redescribed so that it appears good, you can bet that the "angel of light" (2 Cor 11:14) is involved, because manipulating light is his specialty. He makes evil appear good by selectively redirecting and obscuring the light of truth upon it, hiding its ugliness and destructiveness in the shadows and highlighting only its desirable aspects. In this way he works to justify evil in our eyes. Those who have adopted some form of utilitarianism attempt to justify evil actions by pointing to the good effects of those actions. "See, look at the good that comes from all these divisions among Christians." But St. Paul condemns such reasoning in Romans 3:8. We may not do evil or perpetuate evil so that good may result. No matter what good God has brought or will bring out of the evil of our disunity, that does not justify making or perpetuating schisms between Christians.

Of those Christians who recognize our disunity as contrary to Christ's heart as revealed in His prayer in St. John 17, relatively few are actively engaged in ecumenical efforts. Some conceive of ecumenicism as a misguided idealism that intrinsically involves compromise of the truth. Others simply lower the bar of unity, seeking merely some sort of bare unity on 'essentials'.

But, we are not without firmly grounded hope, because our hope is in Christ, with whom all things are possible. I am continually reminded of 1 Kings 7:1-2, where the condition Elisha promises for the following day seems impossible from the human point of view. And the same is true of Ezekiel 37:17. The reunion of all Christians can happen, more suddenly than we imagine, by the power of God. This does not mean that we should bury our ecumenical 'talent', leaving this task to God. Rather, we should be assured that God delights to receive our gifts of loaves and fishes, and multiply them beyond anything we can imagine, as He multiplied Abraham's descendants beyond the number of the stars. We should take courage, therefore, and stand firm and determined in our pursuit of the reconciliation and reunion of all Christians, as Pope Benedict today urged that we do.

Consider how long William Wilberforce labored to abolish the slave trade in England before finally seeing the results of his efforts. Consider the endurance and determination manifested by Martin Luther King Jr. If he had concluded from the pessimism of those who said "Racism you will always have with you this side of heaven", that we should not strive to eliminate racial injustice, we might still be drinking out of separate drinking fountains, and we would not now have a black president. Likewise, we too should not allow the fact that sin and disorder will never be eliminated from this present age to lead us to turn a blind eye to the present schisms and disunity among Christians. We can make a difference as peace-makers, with God’s help, but not as long as we believe that fate or sin makes such efforts futile.

Where is the hue and cry for our denominational leaders to take seriously our present state of division? Are the leaders of all the various denominations vowing to remain in constant dialogue until unity is achieved? Do you see or hear anyone calling out repeatedly in print or other media, for every effort to be made by denominational leaders to reconcile divided Christians? Or has the implicit denial of the visibility of the Church become the widespread yet unreflective assumption?

When I was younger I tended to think that whatever important things needed to be done in the world would be done by people older and more competent than myself. Only in recent years have I come to realize that what I am now is just what those "older and more competent" persons were then. And that is true for all of us. If we all simply waited for someone older and more competent to come along, the challenging ecumenical task that lies before us would never get done. If we want to hear a hue and cry, we have to raise it.

I'm not one who thinks that the younger generation is better than the previous generations, but I do believe that the younger generation is much more open than previous generations. The loss of 'denominational loyalty' might reflect a loss of loyalty as a virtue. But perhaps it suggests that this generation is open and willing to dialogue, confronted with its fragmentation and longing for the unity and security of the Church as our new covenant family, and for the rest that comes from finding our true ecclesial home. In this generation, with God's help we can undo the schisms of the past, by suffering with Him for His sake, in the patient labor of love in the spiritual works of mercy. This was the vision of Fr. Neuhaus. May he rest in peace, and may hundreds rise up to take his place.

"On the two pieces of wood, which form the cross of Christ, the Lord of history takes upon himself the wounds and divisions of humanity. In the totality of Jesus' gift of himself on the cross, he holds together human sin and God's redemptive steadfast love. To be a Christian is to be baptized into this death, through which the Lord, in his boundless mercy, etches the names of wounded humanity onto the wood of the cross, holding us to himself and restoring our relationship with God and with each other."

"Let us also go, that we may die with Him." (St. John 11:16)

Heal, Lord, our many divisions. May we be your instruments to bring your perfect unity to all your people. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 comment:

David said...

Hi Bryan. This is a great article! I particularly liked the discussion about lowering expectations of unity. I've had many close friends and family members make the argument that “we’re all Christian so what does denomination matter?”. You explain why this collapses on itself in a very reasonable and charitable way. Thank you!