In the Gospel of John, chapter 17, Jesus prays these words while on the cross to the Father before he gives over his Spirit. These words are carved into the cornerstone of my parish because it is a hallmark of the Friars of Atonement, the first Anglican Order to be welcomed into full communion with the Catholic Church and whose charism is Ecumenism.
In years past, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was a more serious or even ostentatious affair. It was (and still is) a big deal for the many Christian denominations worldwide to come together despite our differences. In my seminary days, I first encountered the more complex nuances of the “scandal” of Christian dis-unity. The average person might be familiar with the meme: “There’s just enough religion in the world to make everyone hate each other, but not enough to love.” The scandal of Christian dis-unity is something like that: “Why should we take Christianity seriously if all of YOU can’t get it together?”
In my parish life today, ecumenism has less to do with theological or doctrinal disputes and more to do with interdenominational marriages. Quite a number of Confirmation Candidates come from such “mixed marriages” as do candidates for Professions of Faith in the RCIA. Quite a number of spouses remain Protestant, but may or may not come to worship at our parish. Most who decide to enter the RCIA to make a Profession of Faith and be welcomed into full communion with the Catholic Church through Confirmation and Eucharist don’t have any strong “conversion” as to what is Protestant and what is Catholic. It isn’t really a choice of convenience, but rarely is it one of deep conviction either. Nevertheless, the pull to appreciate diversity within the unity of Catholic ritual and practice does draw people every year.
This Week of Prayer involves the whole Church and the whole world. It comes at a time when Christian persecution (something that may have seemed even more antiquated then the World Council of Churches and Vatican II) is in the news. Religious fanaticism eats up its own, atheism and secularism nibble around the edges of doubt, and the “spiritual but not religious” and the “nones” continue to proliferate through social media.
Here in the States the week begins on Monday with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It includes the Day of Prayer for the Unborn on Friday and concludes with the feast celebrating the Conversion of St. Paul. So it is not hard to place the general concerns of a broken world and fragmented Christian churches along the backdrop of the arc of social justice, dignity of all human life, and the belief in radical change.
Just a few days ago it seems, David Bowie, an influential icon in the world of music, art, and fashion, passed away. He died at 69 after 18 months of fighting cancer. The latter fact was completely unknown to even his closest followers. He died three days after his birthday. He died on the eve of my own son’s 11th death anniversary. (Joshua Emet died during labor and delivery, a surprise as well).
As I shared my yearly reflections about my son’s passing along with those affected by David Bowie’s death, I was struck by how many people in my social feeds were fans and admirers of him. Even a cardinal in the Vatican had something to say.
For many of us, David Bowie was the person that “made it cool” for the weird kids. One friend noted that although he didn’t know his work that well, based on his prolific portfolio of images, he seemed like a guy who was always ready to smile. There are even pictures of him smiling for his photographer just days before his death. And he even went so far as to release a new record and a “farewell” type video called Lazarus, literally just before he died.
I don’t know whether he had it all planned, but he certainly was someone who knew diversity (as well as adversity), was no stranger to the stranger, and knew to a great degree how his actions mattered on the world stage. A tweet that went viral summed it up. @elusiveJ wrote: “Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.” There is something comforting and true in that.
The day after my son’s death anniversary, President Barack Obama gave his last State of the Union speech of his second term. There is the obvious political spin that such an event holds, especially during upcoming primaries and an eventual presidential election. In a quite personal moment the President also hit a note that rang uncomfortably true. He lamented that one of his deepest regrets was his inability to bring our divisive, ideologically-driven country closer together. He spoke the truth plainly that many in the House expressed how terrible things had become and how unhappy they were that it was that way. What else is there but “Hope and Change”?
Neither Bowie nor Obama claimed to have divine or superhuman abilities to overcome these kind of obstacles. But each in their own way strove to raise us up and to make a more perfect union. As Christians, we bear our own brokenness and yearn for a time when our own denominational outlooks will not blind us to the needs that are out there today.
For example, another friend of mine from high school, Jim Keedy, sought to run for elected office in my hometown. He lost. But he turned around and took time off on two separate occasions to travel to Lesvos, Greece so that he could experience first-hand the refugee crisis and dispel this “fear of the Syrian terrorist” hiding among the refugees. He met fear with mercy, last year and again this year.
There is much in this New Year that is just as divided, broken, and dysfunctional as the year before. There is much that needs to be done. There are not too many guarantees ahead. Bowie and Obama (and my son, Joshua Emet) point out that there is death, there is future, there is surprise.
And for us Christians there are the words of Jesus: “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”
© Copyright 2016 Jay Cuasay
Photography, Facing the new year, Jay Cuasay, Dec 2015. All Rights Reserved.