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Ecumenism:
Celebrating Jesus' Birthday
by Martin E. Marty

The birthday of Jesus is what makers of calendars call "a movable feast." Not only have we no idea what day of the year Mary gave birth—there is a 1-in-365 chance that it was December 25—but we do not even know the year. Those who prepared the calendars almost certainly made some mistakes.

Experts usually suggest that the Nativity occurred in 6 B.C.E. or 4 B.C.E. But a movable feast can be transferred to a convenient and rich time, and the Christian world has chosen all of the year 2000 to celebrate the 2000th birthday of Jesus, with encores in 2001. Leaving behind the experts, a first carefree and then careful Christian Church says, in effect, "Let's have a party," and sets out to have one.

Essential details

What kind of an observance should such a party be? In every local community, in all the nations and around the globe, events will mark the rolling around of another 1,000 years. Each represents grand opportunities and offers risks of disaster.

In every celebration, those responsible have to take great pains in making up the guest list, determining who is in and who is out, where to put the place cards, and in the case of boisterous gatherings, whether to provide bouncers for the unruly or unwelcome. This party period is long enough that some Christians can make mistakes early on and correct them later, so that also makes this a learning experience.

That Christians should engage in some common commemorating is an idea that has come to the Catholic world with the encouragement of Pope John Paul II in The Coming of the Third Millennium: "In these last years of the millennium, the Church should invoke the Holy Spirit with ever greater insistence, imploring from him the grace of Christian unity....Unity, after all, is a gift of the Holy Spirit" (#34, #23).

Where is the unity?

The pope would not have had to call for unity if it were manifest. But he speaks in mournful terms of the fact that "ecclesial communion has been painfully wounded, a fact"—and here he quotes a decree from the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council—"'for which, at times, men of both sides were to blame.'"

Both sides? The pope is naturally thinking of the Roman Catholic Church as one "side" and everybody else as "the other side." Those of us on that other side have a hard time even beginning to cut the number down to one. The World Christian Encyclopedia estimates that there are approximately 25,000 separate Christian bodies in the world. Those of us who are reporters, journalists and historians look in on many of them, especially when they hold assemblies and conventions to do churchly business, and we see and hear them fighting with each other. It is tempting to say, then, that there are double the estimated number, or 50,000 Christian groups, disrupting the unity Christ hoped for and commanded and which the Holy Spirit promised and prompts.

For that matter, if the Catholic "side" wants to display unity in 2000, it will have to get its own acts together and call for cease-fires and internal reconciliation. True, all Catholics are united in their obedience to the pope as the Vicar of Christ, and thus to Christ. But what good is such unity if no one can see it or experience it?

Answers to such a question will include an obvious agenda and strategy: Each element of the whole Christian Church will be distracted from celebrating the 2000th birthday of Jesus if its factions and parties are out to do each other in, to dismiss each other even when good intentions are on display. Get your own house, your own houses in order, would be advice number one.

That may be the hardest of all to do in a time when huge blocs of the faithful mistrust or dismiss the other. Some do it over doctrine; more are divided over practice. In an observation shared by most students of conflict, anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski noted, "Aggression, like charity, begins at home." Civil wars are worst. Remote enemies can remain remote and mysterious. My brother knows my secrets, and I his; my sister knows how to irritate me, and I her. We cannot escape each other, and in pettiness we train our sights on each other.

Unity, not uniformity

How we see the comings together of liberal and conservative, rich Christian and poor Christian, traditionalist and experimenter, charismatics who call upon the Holy Spirit one way and others who do not choose the invoking in that way—that "how" is the big issue. The more one is attentive to Scripture and the language of faith through two millennia, the more clear it becomes that Christian unity cannot mean uniformity. No doubt God would be bored by sameness, God having created such delicious diversity. But there are many kinds of differences, and those that disrupt unity stand in the way of celebrations in 2000.

One pictures that some kind of politics exists in all human gatherings, from something as intimate as marriage to something as huge as the United Nations. By politics I mean approaches that imply some give-and-take, some expression of separate wills, some compromise and the ability to "win some and lose some." You will find such in a circle of loving cloistered nuns, among friends in a college fraternity, a Catholic parish, a Presbyterian denomination, and, one supposes, in the College of Cardinals as it goes about electing the pope. To speak thus is not to deny the power of the Holy Spirit. It is only to remember that the Spirit works through human deliberation and debate and through expressions of power—power, one hopes, of the right kind.

Such give-and-take within Catholicism or within "the other side," 50,000 Church bodies strong, is not what distracts from the celebration of the coming of the third millennium. What offends instead is warfare, admittedly not often of the shooting sort but usually beginning with the shouting sort. Christian factions are suspicious of each other, dismissive of their good intentions, unwilling to listen carefully and to put the best gloss on what the other is saying. The slogan is "shape up or ship out." In Catholicism, shipping out tends to be done dinghy by dinghy, as individuals make their way away. In Protestantism, there is more likely open schism by shiploads. But short of schism, conflict—usually of scandalous styles—tears apart those who should be at the same table in 2000. Efforts to produce and encourage reconcilers and people who live reconciled will be the first front for Christians "together."

Even if all get their houses in order, we are still far from what the pope sees the Holy Spirit doing by "gift" and "grace." While we are free to pray for anything, the kinds of prayer and action that will bear immediate fruit (and 2000 is immediate and imminent!) have to do with what the Holy Spirit might do in the so-called real world. That means that Christians on both "sides" do not get to share together the heart of the "wounded...ecclesial communion," which is the Eucharist. Nothing is more urgent than to work for it as an earthly realization of the divine unity. But stipulations beyond the control of local people will prevent it from happening at this time. Our energies go into the real world.

Building local bridges

The real world begins with the local. Just as Tip O'Neill taught that "all politics is local," so we are learning that today "the local is the national." What happens at the school board, library board, clinic board, zoning board, hospital board and town board now has much larger significance. But the local remains the zone or sphere where most make up their minds about whether Christ's body is divided and whether the claims and struggles of the Church merit identification with it.

Not "all ecumenism is local," but there is little ecumenical reality that does not rise from or have effect in the local scene. There are a few guidelines to observe—including the frustrating one,that no Catholic/Orthodox/Protestant/Evangelical common eucharists occur—but for the rest, most Christians do not begin to use the liberty that is theirs or to show the responsibility that can be theirs. This does not mean simply having a joint Thanksgiving Day or a wan Christian Unity Week service (though it might mean having both). Many of these are bland, shopworn and underattended.

Thus advice number two is Christians should involve themselves in each other's doings, be they biblical and theological study, blood-donation drives, CROP walks, refugee services, prayer gatherings, homeless care, musical events or impassioned services of worship in one church to which the "y'all come" produces lively response by other celebrators of Jesus' birth. Then they cannot not worship together. They should thus at least have enough Spirit and spirit that they can blow out 2000 candles.

If such celebrating is local, it also should be global. The present pope has seen few things more frequently, more clearly and more up close than the vitality and variety of Christian communities, from Manila to Bogotá, across Africa and even in the spiritual ice-belt that stretches from Western Europe across northern North America through Japan. He has shown us that the differences to be overcome by celebrators are not just those between Orthodox and Episcopalian and Pentecostal but those across lines of rich world and poor world, upper class and lower class, well-fed and starving, secure and threatened. There are countless ways to begin bridging racial, ethnic, gender, class, generational, ability and taste gaps. Address them, overcome some of them and you have manifested more of the Spirit's unity.

I have not intended to be irresponsible in almost overlooking the valuable outcomes of ecumenical commissions, Christian unity workshops, interchurch boards and bureaus and panels of conversing theologians, all of whom would help render official the covenants and contracts that say, in legal language, that more of the Church can express unity. I have intended to picture Christian communities so vital and adventurous that they threaten to break the bounds. In the process, they will keep the commissions and councils busy, so busy that we may have to tap them on the shoulder and say, "It's 2000. A movable feast, the birth of Jesus, is to mark the whole year. Remember that a place has been reserved for you."

The power of prayer

And if this vision has been too rich in playfulness and caprice, in casual comment mingled with the awe that is natural for such an occasion, let it be written off not to an author's capriciousness but recorded as his witness—and that of thousands—to the surprising way the Spirit has acted since that Spirit hovered over the waters in Genesis 1 or over the tongue-flamed, babbling disciples at Pentecost in Acts 2. "Unity, after all, is a gift of the Holy Spirit."

The way to celebrate, then, is the one that gets mentioned often in The Coming of the Third Millennium: to mean it, and therefore, to pray.*

Martin E. Marty directs the Public Religion Project, a Pew Charitable Trusts-funded project of the University of Chicago, where he is Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus.

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Father James Loughran

Twelve months from now Father James Loughran would like nothing better than to join Christians of all denominations for a common celebration of the 2000th birthday of Jesus. For him there would be no more appropriate or satisfying way to welcome in the new millennium.

But the 40-year-old priest is a realistic man. When he entered the Franciscan Society of the Atonement in 1982 he knew that Christian unity, the special work of the society—celebrating its 100th anniversary this year—was a long-term goal. "You can't put a deadline on the work of the Holy Spirit or on the work of unity," he told Millennium Monthly from his office in Manhattan, where he serves as director of the Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Archdiocese of New York.

But that truth doesn't keep the native of Lowell, Massachusetts, from pursuing his ongoing dream of one Church for all Christians. In that pursuit he is unrelenting. He rejects the notion that it is enough for all Christians to simply appreciate, love and learn from each other. His goal is that Christians form one real worshiping body. "You can call me an unreconstructed Roman Catholic ecumenist," he says with good humor.

He appreciates the progress various Christian denominations have made in exploring such issues as the nature of the Eucharist and justification by faith. But the key question, Father Loughran points out, is how papal ministry is exercised, a topic Pope John Paul II has asked other Christian Churches to explore with him. The Holy Father's newest encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), will make a "great contribution to quality ecumenical discourse," Father Loughran believes.

Meanwhile, let the serious ecumenical dialogue continue, he says. And keep the prayers coming, because it is "vital that we pray together to God to forgive us for being separated." Christian unity, Father Loughran believes, is nothing less than "a command of Jesus Christ. We must be one Church."

Most divisions within Christianity occurred in this, the second, millennium, Father Loughran points out. "We need to forgive one another for those 1,000 years and spend the coming years getting back together. We need to reaffirm our commitment to unity in the year 2000."*

— by Judy Ball

 

 
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Top Ten Church Moments of the Last Two Millennia


1. Pentecost.The Church is born with the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room in Jerusalem.

2. Conversion of St. Paul. The former persecutor of Christians becomes a follower of Jesus and an apostle.

3. Freedom for the Church. Roman Emperor Constantine's victory in battle over opposing Roman forces in 313 ends several hundred years of persecution and makes Christianity a lawful religion.

4. The Council of Chalcedon. In 451 the Council settles a pivotal doctrinal dispute, defining Jesus as one divine person with two natures—human and divine.

5. Christianization of the barbarians. The founding of the Benedictine Order at Monte Cassino in 520 allows St. Benedict and his monks to create a network of monasteries that bring Christian education to Europe, and help civilize nomadic barbarians who had dismantled the structures of the Roman Empire.

6. Rise of the mendicant orders. At the start of the 13th century Dominican and Franciscan friars take religious life out of the cloister and into the world, bringing about widespread Church renewal.

7. The Protestant Revolt. In 1517 Martin Luther publicly challenges Church teaching, signaling the start of the Protestant Reformation.

8. The Council of Trent. The bishops at the Council of Trent (1545-63), which defined key doctrines of the Church and introduced many reforms, sparked the Counter-Reformation.

9. The First Vatican Council. The popes had lost their political power, but this Council (1869-71) enhanced the potential for papal ministry in the Church and spurred an internal spiritual renewal of the Church.

10. The Second Vatican Council. The doors of the Church were opened to the world at Vatican II (1962-65), giving birth to a New Pentecost and a Church more fully committed to the contemporary needs of the modern world.

The above is adapted from "Ten 'Peak Moments' of Church History," Catholic Update, June 1987 (St. Anthony Messenger Press), by Father Alfred McBride, O.Praem.


 

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