Ecumenical Service of Prayer
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – January 19, 2022
“We saw the star in the East, and we came to worship him” (Matthew 2:1-12). Brothers and sisters, it is good for us to join together in prayer. It has been a long time!
This year’s theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was selected by the Middle East Council of Churches and originates from the churches in Lebanon. As most of us know all too well, present times in Lebanon are extremely difficult. The country is on the verge of collapse. And when coupled with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the dire situation facing this portion of the People of God is tragically apparent. So we pray in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Lebanon. … This day, we are also mindful of the potential for war in the Ukraine and pray for peace in that land and for so many others who suffer throughout our world.
In choosing “We saw the star in the East, and we came to worship him” (cf. Matthew 2:2) as the theme for the 2022 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Council of Churches sought to highlight the importance and meaning of the Epiphany to Eastern Christians in revealing God’s salvation to the world and showing the unity he desires among his creation.
The story of the magi, who are the last to arrive in Bethlehem in Matthew’s infancy narrative, carries with it all sorts of rich imagery even as their arrival in Bethlehem triggered the unleashing of evil and hatred aimed at the newborn Christ and his mission of mercy and salvation. Their arrival and welcome also revealed something else. Jesus’ message of hope was extended to all peoples through his self-sacrificing and unconditional love.
While the scope of Jesus’ saving grace may seem quite reasonable to us, for many at the time of Jesus’ birth, the magi simply didn’t belong in Bethlehem, did they? They were different. Some believed that only the chosen people should have been recipients of God’s saving grace. But the magi turned that understanding of God upside down. They were welcomed by the Christ because they were seeking something more in life than the riches of this world. They listened to God in their dreams – in their hearts. And recognizing in Jesus the fulfillment of all that they sought, they worshipped him and opened their lives to his presence.
Sisters and brothers, more than ever, our world and our lives need to embrace the message proclaimed in the Word of God this day. Simply put, Epiphany celebrates God’s all-inclusive love manifested in the life of his Son, Jesus – something integrally woven into the work of ecumenism.
Sadly, as with some of the earliest followers of Jesus, some of us still act as if God is our sole possession. Some still attempt to place parameters around where God is able to work, with whom and how. And many of us are often more reluctant than we might be willing to admit to share the same mercy and love of God which we so boldly request and readily embrace.
Today’s scriptural focus upon the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem, offers an essential insight into our faith as Christians that we ought never to forget. All of us are saved not by our own righteousness but by the mercy and love of God won for us through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Such overwhelming love and mercy can never be limited by our determination of who is worthy of God’s saving grace and who is not.
The message of Epiphany goes on to set the stage for a far more challenging chapter in the life and ministry of Jesus. The heartwarming details of his birth gave way to a different story: the story of God’s plan for salvation – a story of humble service – unconditional, sacrificial love – and unlimited forgiveness and compassion.
These are the real treasures of Epiphany – gifts available to all who open their hearts to Jesus’ presence – from all of us who worship this day – to the suffering poor – to immigrants seeking a better life – to refugees fleeing from terrorism and war – to the magi of our time who seek meaning, purpose and a way forward in life through an encounter with the living God.
In the great prayer from the seventeenth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, Jesus asks four times that his disciples be “one,” as he and his Father are one. The unity for which Jesus prays, however, is not an end in itself. It has a purpose. In the prayer, Jesus twice notes its end: “so that the world may believe.” We gather in prayer today, then, not simply to satisfy an inner need or to fulfill a tradition. We gather in prayer today as a visible sign to the world of our communion with the Lord Jesus and our mission, like that of the magi, to lead others to embrace His life and salvation.
One of the fundamental issues discussed over a hundred years ago at that Edinburgh Conference, which served as a foundational moment for these days of prayer, was that of the difficulty of proposing in a credible way to the non-Christian world the Gospel proclamation by Christians who were divided among themselves. If Christians present themselves divided to a world that does not know Christ, will the proclamation of Christ as Lord and Savior of the world and our peace be as credible as it could be? Sadly, we know the answer: No!
Recall the words of so many of the prophets of Israel. They challenged the empty prayers and worship of the people, didn’t they? And so did Jesus. We, then, become credible witnesses of Jesus’ prayer for unity not merely by the multiplication and intensity of our prayers. Something more is demanded. It’s easy to pray for unity, but prayer alone can become a comfortable substitute for an unwillingness to act.
I’d suggest three areas that have the potential to increase our witness to Jesus prayer for unity and to provide us with a hopeful way forward.
First, the work of countless numbers of official dialogues between Christian churches continues to bear fruit. In the Catholic Church alone, when I completed by term as Chair of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, I was privileged to have overseen a dozen active dialogues in the United States alone, with more on the horizon. As Pope Francis remarked just a few days ago, the journey toward full unity is sometimes difficult. It takes considerable time and “can lead to a certain weariness and temptation to discouragement.” It is, however, an imperative for every authentic believer in the gospel of Jesus.
Second, as many of you know, in October, 2021, the Catholic Church inaugurated a synodal process, titled “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission” that will lead to a general assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2023. Because a synodal church is a church which listens, we have been challenged to recognize that “this listening should concern the totality of those who are honored by the name of Christian.” As such, with a clear ecumenical dimension of the synodal process before us, given that “synodality and ecumenism are processes of walking together,” the Catholic community will be reaching out to Christian leaders throughout our dioceses to engage your thoughts for how our Church can best grow in communion, participation and mission.
Third, while we are all aware of the challenges to Christian unity, Pope Francis has often noted that the greatest sign of hope that has marked our ecumenical journey is our common witness to the love of Christ within us: love poured forth in service of the least among us.
In an address to a Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity several years ago, Pope Francis acknowledged this sign of hope. “Unity of love is already a reality when those whom God has chosen and called to form His people proclaim together the wonders that He has done for them, above all by offering a testimony of life full of charity to all. Therefore, I love to repeat that … when we walk together and when we collaborate together in the proclamation of the Gospel and in our service to the least among us, we are already united. All the theological and ecclesiological differences that still divide Christians will only be surmounted along this way, without us knowing today how and when.”
“We saw the star in the East, and we came to worship him.” … Sisters and brothers, may this day cause us to recognize anew the imperative to make Jesus’ prayer for unity our own. And may we come to understand that we do so best when we first seek to live in unity with one another and so become credible witnesses of Jesus, whose light still shines brightly in our world with the power to bind us together in peace. Amen.