My penchant for trying to be an ecumenist 52 weeks of the year instead of the one week devoted annually to promoting Christian unity in PLURAM churches has earned me the moniker of being a “roaming Catholic.”
The many and frequent encounters and sharing which it was/is my privilege to experience with fellow Christians of other spiritual unions or denominations leaves me rooted with a conviction that there resides in many of my fellow believers a genuine yearning to enter into dialogue with one another.
Many ask like-minded people who form part of that mystical body of or union with Jesus Christ, why? Simple. I am searching for those who, like me, share a common quest to regain the word of God, but also the work of God.
The need to have what existed in the early Christian church, that is, continuing to share the legacy of Jesus Christ, is vital to the continued growth of Christianity. And the continued success of its development rests heavily on those who elect to follow his invitation to share the word and work of God.
Evangelization’s success or momentum was to a large extent the product of baptized Christians who followed in the steps of Christ and his followers. By spreading the Word of God through its own converted via small informal groups or collectives of believers not only allowed people to foster Christ’s message by sharing the Word of God, but more importantly to accomplish or do the work of God. Over several millennia of Christianity, the importance and need for the “Spirit of Christ” to emanate from and through the “instrumentality of its faithful,” has not diminished.
Fast forward to the beginning of this millennium, where many Christian churches, are acutely aware of how a lack of oneness or fellowship within their respective faith communities has had a deleterious effect on both individual and collective growth in faith. Instead of a culture of fellowship and intimacy, there has developed a culture of anonymity.
The unexpected but consoling result of celebrating our shared Christian theology, a common inheritance as baptized Christians, is to realize our differences may not be so fundamental as to render the possibility of closer communion or dialogue difficult, if not impossible. It is only by continuing our dialogue at a critical level, amongst laity, that assures us that we are moving in a positive and productive direction, one that may well lead to a beneficial result of bringing our communities closer to realization of pan-Christian unanimity.
A recent service conducted at a United Church (UCC) in Moose Jaw demonstrated that not only do some Christian churches share some important dates that are common to each one’s liturgical calendars, but they also observe such dates with similar services of worship. It begs the question: why do more Christians of different denominations who share these common dates of observance not unite to share a common rite or service of worship for their members to assist at, together as one?
Ash Wednesday was being observed to mark the commencement of Lent in this particular UCC faith community. It underscores that there are other Christian faiths apart from Catholic that have as a constituent strand or part of its remembrance of the centrality of community being Jesus himself, notably Christ’s Passion.
This UCC lenten service was my first introduction to Ash Wednesday observance outside of the Roman Catholic tradition. My curiousity got the best of me; I wanted to discover how another faith might observe the occasion. My other motivation was to share the start of the lenten season with my fellow Christians in UCC.
This Ash Wednesday rite used symbols not unfamiliar to our Catholic lenten tradition — fire, water and ashes. Being a liturgical service, of course, three Scripture readings fit prominently in the order of service.
A penitential rite was included in the service with three prayers of confession recited by the worship leader and replied to responsively by the congregation with “Lord have mercy, Holy One deliver us, Agnus Dei.”
During the third prayer of confession, each person was invited by the minister to write on a single piece of paper his/her own prayer of confession which could then be placed in the container which was used to burn the ashes.
Music selections drawn from Voices United hymnal appropriate for lenten service was prominently featured at different points in the service. A reflection paid special emphasis on confession as a precursor to forgiveness and renewal highlighting the real significance for observing Ash Wednesday as part of church’s lenten calendar.
The UCC has a similar practice of distributing palm ashes, and the imposition on each recipient was accompanied by the words “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” with the response being a simple Amen.
Something that I found to be very meaningful was the sharing of a sung blessing by participants with one another at the conclusion. I think it reinforced the fact that regardless of our faith, the baptismal vow we make sanctifies us to minister to one another. What also resonated was the fact that has incorporated into its emblem the Latin words ut unum sint, translated “that all may be one.”
This blessing underlined for me a self-evident truth that at the heart of the Christian reality, we are bonded in the love of Christ. I came away confident each one in attendance experienced that same grace and consolation on this Ash Wednesday.
Fleming lives in Moose Jaw and is a supporter of ecumenical and multi-faith initiatives in Saskatchewan. He continues to dialogue with members of different faiths and creeds.