How difficult is human relationship! How glorious, how deeply and universally sought-after it is! Our hunger for relationship can draw out the best and the worst in us. The deepest wrestling is with one another, in relationship — be it person to person, nation to nation, or church to church.
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ,” urges St Paul, “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). It isn’t easy, but it’s urgent.
We are invited to pray with this passage during this year’s Week of Prayer for the Unity of Christians (as Abbé Paul Couturier preferred to call it). Annual prayers for Christian unity are held formally all around the world from Jan. 18 - 25. These prayers have happened every year since 1908, including during war years. Who knows, maybe this is one of the reasons the world has not yet flown apart despite the vast and continual human energy expended in trying to break it.
Reconciliation is a key word of the Gospel, but it’s one of those keys that seems doomed to be forever getting lost. Reconciliation to God sounds wonderful, but the way there may be hard to take because it generally involves changing our relationships with each other, and that is tough for us humans.
The Week of Prayer embodies the insight of Abbé Couturier (one of its architects) that the closer we come to Christ, the closer we come to each other.
No wonder we are often inclined to stay far away from Christ, since coming closer to each other is no easy matter.
“Love is not a victory march,” singer Leonard Cohen wrote with his usual perspicacity. The ecumenical work of healing Christian divisions has not been a victory march. It’s been a path of light and shadow, marked by disappointments and failures in counterpoint with glorious transformation and joyous encounters. It’s the plain, simple hard work of women and men who have undertaken the “ministry of reconciliation” St Paul speaks of (v.18) — with energy, vision, prayer and good humour. An inspired combination.
To receive what Christ brings is to be changed, and those closest to us must feel that change the most. This is the kind of thing Abbé Couturier understood by spiritual ecumenism, and his conviction that the closer each Christian community comes to Christ, the closer they come to each other. But as we come closer together, our wounds will surface. So our relationships with each other are destabilized, in quest of a truer stability. That’s why the work of ecumenism is scary and exciting at the same time.
“Everybody knows it’s coming apart,” sang Leonard Cohen. St Paul points out that where it’s coming apart is where it’s coming to life. There’s an opportunity for what’s new in us to renew what’s old and worn out in us. “Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” he cries (v.14).
Last fall, in Canterbury and Rome, bishops gathered in pairs — Catholic and Anglican — for an eight-day pilgrimage. This event was part of the international gathering of Anglican and Catholic bishops (known as IARCCUM) established in 2001. Anglicans and Catholics have been sundered, sometimes violently, for over four centuries. Since 1966, when Pope Paul VI gave his episcopal ring to then-Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, many sutures have been sewn into those wounds. This pilgrimage was one of many inter-church gatherings and encounters happening all around us, in ways that were never possible before. They are bringing us ever closer to reconciliation and peace, mostly without our noticing. Sometimes the best things happen a little at a time, unbeknownst to us, then burst into bloom all at once to delight us all the more.
At this particular bishops’ meeting, a quiet, unheralded moment came with a unique and poignant beauty.
The unity the bishops experienced was embodied in their receiving a piece of the true cross — not a cross of gold and jewels, but the cross of vulnerability and even failure — a Lampedusa cross. This is the cross of people who died fleeing violence and crossing the Mediterranean. Local carpenter Francesco Tuccio made the crosses from the wreckage of a boat that crashed off the shores of Lampedusa, killing 311 refugees; the townspeople helped save the remaining 155 people.
The gift of these crosses gave a new depth to the familiar ecumenical symbol of a cross in a boat. The bishops were challenged to carry together the cross of our time. They were commissioned by Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to be “artisans of healing and reconciliation in the power of the Gospel.”
This is work that cannot wait. Where do we get this kind of wisdom?
“The love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all . . . so that those who live might live no longer for themselves” (1 Cor 5:14-15).
Marrocco is a marriage and family therapist, teacher of theology, and writer, and co-ordinates St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. She can be reached at email@example.com