Church Moments of the Last Two Millennia
issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Celebrating Jesus' Birthday
by Martin E. Marty
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 birththere
is a 1-in-365 chance that it was December 25but we do not
even know the year. Those who prepared the calendars almost certainly
made some mistakes.
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.
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.
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.
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).
is the unity?
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 waythat "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.
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 powerpower,
one hopes, of the right kind.
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, conflictusually
of scandalous stylestears 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."
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.
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.
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 observeincluding the frustrating one,that no Catholic/Orthodox/Protestant/Evangelical
common eucharists occurbut 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.
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.
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.
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."
power of prayer
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 witnessand that of thousandsto 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."
to celebrate, then, is the one that gets mentioned often in The
Coming of the Third Millennium: to mean it, and therefore, to
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.
Father James Loughran
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 societycelebrating its 100th anniversary this
yearwas 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.
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.
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."
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
Ten Church Moments of the Last Two Millennia
Pentecost.The Church is born with
the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room in Jerusalem.
of St. Paul. The former persecutor of Christians becomes
a follower of Jesus and an apostle.
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.
Council of Chalcedon. In 451 the Council settles a pivotal
doctrinal dispute, defining Jesus as one divine person with
two natureshuman and divine.
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.
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
Protestant Revolt. In 1517 Martin Luther publicly challenges
Church teaching, signaling the start of the Protestant Reformation.
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.
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.
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.
above is adapted from "Ten
'Peak Moments' of Church History," Catholic Update,
June 1987 (St. Anthony Messenger Press), by Father Alfred McBride,