Friday, October 08, 2004


Michael Foster, after delineating his thoughts on mystery which I was so fond of a few posts ago, goes on to discuss Church unity. He quotes a participant in the 3rd Council on Faith and Order in 1952 (one of the 20th centuries' many ecumenical efforts) who said:
"It was in studying the doctrine of the Trinity that I came to realize that unity is not a simple thing... Now I am wondering whether in discussing the desired unity of the Church we do not too easily take it for granted that we know quite well what unity means... What if the unity God wills for His church be a unity which, like His own unity, we have not yet conceived in our minds."(p.23) Mystery and Philosophy

Inspired by this quote, I gave a small Scripture meditation to an ecumenical prayer group, specifically consisting of Lutherans, Catholics and Episcopalians. We met in the absolutely glorious setting of the Princeton University Chapel. As the service was at 10pm, it was not a packed house - so in order to increase my audience by just a few, I present to you my reflections:

The Scripture reading for this evening is from Romans 12, "Serve the Lord, rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer."

As you know, the chapel here was built with a magnificent plan of windows that explore different dimensions of the Christian faith. I would like to summon the assistance of those windows to help us reflect on tonight's Scripture. But seeing that it's dark outside... you'll have to take what I say about them on faith, or come back tomorrow during the day to see if what I said was true.

Directly above us happen to be the four windows each depicting one of the great written epics of the Christian faith. As this is an ecumenical service, I would like to playfully assign a window to each of the communions represented in this room.

The first window depicts Dante's Divine Comedy. Because it is the first of the epics published and thus the oldest, and because it is easily the most elaborate and comprehensive, clearly this needs be the Roman Catholic window.

The second depicts Le Morte D'Arthur (the Death of Arthur), written in the 15th century when Malory collaborated all of the Arthur legends into one work. Because of its English character, and because of the centrality of the eucharist in the work as symbolized by the Grail myth, this window has to go to the Anglicans.

The next window depicts John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. And although Bunyan himself was a Baptist, I would like to assign this window to the Lutherans in the room. For as Christian makes his journey to the Celestial City in Bunyan's work, each time he is led off track it is by grace alone that he is set back on the right path. Each time he gets into a mess, it is never by his merit, but by grace that he is rescued. And so due to the Lutheran tradition's reforming emphasis on God's grace over human effort, the Bunyan widow goes to them.

Finally, John Milton's Paradise Lost is depicted on the last window. Because first Milton was a Presbyterian battling against the established Anglicans, and later enough of a free-churchman to be included in Oliver Cromwell's army - we can safely assign the last reading to the Presbyterians and free church members among us.

Serve the Lord...
But what does all this have to do with the Scripture reading? The reading this evening says "Serve the Lord." Serve the Lord, not serve our various traditions. And although there is much to be thankful for and to celebrate in our various traditions, we are not to serve them, but serve the Lord who gives them their value. Therefore, beautiful as they are, to focus our eyes on any of the described windows for too long would be a mistake. Instead we should look to the great Christ window directly ahead of us [the epic windows flank it on both sides]. It depicts Maundy Thursday where the Lord humbled himself to be our servant, and so we should humble ourselves to be his.

rejoice in hope...
The Scripture also says rejoice in hope. As we keep our focus on Christ, we can rejoice in the hope that one day, perhaps in our lifetimes, the divisions in Christendom will cease. Certainly no one could have predicted the Second Vatican Council that did so much to foster ecumenism, and neither can we predict what is to come. When Cardinal Kaspar, the head of ecumenical affairs at the Vatican, came to speak in Princeton two years ago he made the following point: No German historian could have predicted the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and in the same way no one can predict what the Spirit will do to reunite us... so we are to wait in expectation.

endure in affliction...
The Scripture also says endure in affliction. And this we need to do. We are not yet united, and we cannot pretend we are. It is a mistake in the ecumenical movement to share communion as a "protest" to the divisions in Christendom. It is painful that Protestants cannot share communion with Catholics - but it is a pain we must endure, if only for penance for the our own sins and the sins of those before us which have fostered our divisions. We must endure in the affliction of disunity - we cannot share communion yet.

persevere in prayer.
But although we cannot share communion, we can pray together, and should continue to do so. For as the Catholic Catechism says, point 821, "prayer in common... should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement."