Celebrate and Mourn

Yes, this is “the” Big Weekend — Reformation weekend. I remember Reformation Sunday 1999 well. It was the first time I found myself, a Roman Catholic then, preaching in a Lutheran pulpit at the invitation of the local pastor. It was a momentous day in Augsburg, Germany, where representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The core argument from the 16th century, that lead to Martin Luther’s excommunication, was finally laid to rest. Since that momentous event other church bodies have signed on this Declaration, including the World Methodist Conference, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Anglican Communion. The gaps that have separated the followers of Jesus Christ — the Prince of Peace, the great Reconciler — are closing and healing. Across most of the Christian world a collective sigh of relief and gratitude can be heard —  reconciliation at last.

I have lived the painful divisions in the Body of Christ quite personally for the past 27 years and continue to do so.  As a good Catholic girl I studied at a Lutheran seminary, and discovered to my great surprise that Lutherans and other Christians can indeed be authentic living witnesses to Christ Jesus. Now, twenty-seven years later, I am an Anglican deacon, soon to be priest, and live the deep pain of a closed Roman Catholic communion table, where ecclesial divisions apparently trump the marital communion I live with my own RC spouse on a daily basis.

So when I read about Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Vincent Nichols embracing in tears at communion time, I wept my tears with them. This line in particular hit home: Entirely against the teaching of Jesus Christ, Christians learnt to hate and kill each other, even more than they had done in the past. And Pope Francis said today: “For so long we regarded one another from afar, all too humanly, harbouring suspicion, dwelling on differences and errors, and with hearts intent on recrimination for past wrongs.”  How did it come to this?

If nothing else, I hope with all my heart that we have learnt some hard lessons in humility, restraint and remorse towards one another. In this anniversary year, none other than Pope Francis is illustrating with bold gestures and words that the Christian family has indeed buried its hatchets and is ushering in a new era of healing divisions. This 80-year old pontiff is living up to his title — building bridges wherever there is an openness of heart, risking new initiatives of reconciliation and dialogue. In today’s meeting with the leadership of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland Pope Francis noted that “Christians of different denominations are living today as true brothers, no longer as adversaries.”

In my own little community on the Canadian prairies, we are slowly following suit. Anglicans, Lutherans and Catholics are gathering on a regular basis now to engage in common prayer and to learn about one another’s faith traditions, assisted by ecumenical documents produced by national and international dialogue groups. With internet access these great ecumenical documents are only one click away. What is harder is to find enough good church folk willing to risk the learning and growing with their sisters and brothers in another church. But in our small prairie town we are making progress. While our Lutheran-Catholic Lenten study this past spring lacked some important conversation partners, this fall’s Anglican-Catholic-Lutheran study is seeing a great three-way denominational mix at the weekly sessions. The discoveries and learning are creating surprise and enthusiasm, yet generating tears of both celebration and mourning. We have so much in common yet, like estranged siblings, we have lost out on so much in these five centuries apart.

In our zeal to confess Christ Jesus as Lord, we still fail miserably to live up to this claim. Let us heed our sorrowful history of internal conflict and strife as a shameful betrayal of the very unity for which our Lord Jesus prayed so fervently when the cross loomed. While old barriers are indeed dissolving, new ones are waiting to take their place. As my little ecumenical study group on the prairies is learning, some church traditions continue to resist relinquishing their own security of being right in order to further the unity for which Christ died. Others look upon smaller traditions are somehow less than, thus ignoring Paul’s summons in 1 Corinthians 12 to regard those members of the body that we think less honourable (to) clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members with greater respect. Time will tell whether we have learnt the lessons both from history and from our Lord Jesus himself.

That Reformation Sunday in 1999, preaching with joy on the Joint Declaration as the fruit of fraternal dialogue, an older woman greeted me after the service. She grabbed both my hands while tears streamed down her face. “I’ve prayed for this all my life,” she managed to say with great emotion. “When I married my Lutheran husband 42 years ago, the Catholic priest told me not to bother coming back to church.” Her words hit me in the stomach. “And when I saw you up there,” she continued, “I knew this was God’s doing.”

Little did I know that my words and presence unleashed God’s healing waters in this woman’s spirit. Words preached that Reformation Sunday by a Roman Catholic woman in a Lutheran pulpit stitched her shattered heart together again. I have carried her, and many others since, with me in my heart and prayers. And so this weekend I both celebrate the remarkable reconciliation we have achieved in the past fifty years as well as shed tears of lament  for the unity which still eludes our reach.

Logo in top image: from Lutheran Church Canada

Update Reformation Day Oct. 31 — Joint Statement from the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.

Prairie Encounters

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