Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lent and the ecumenism of blood.

For Roman Catholics, Lent begins today with Ash Wednesday. Thinking about how to mark the start of Lent on this blog, I took note of these paragraphs posted yesterday by Father Ray Blake:
'Authenticity' in the Liturgy should be important, it is important in the Christian life, it should be important in Lent. 'Authenticity' is the brother of Truth, one of the most important aspects of Lent is the Sacrament of Penance, one significant reason people fail to go to Confession is that they are afraid of facing the truth about themselves and afraid of admitting it to another human being. There is a cowardliness here that is quite alien to the Gospel.

Living in shadows, living with half truths, living with illusions is not Christian. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Christians are supposed to be both truthful and honest, especially about themselves and the Lord.

The great spiritual masters tell us to 'seek humiliations,' ultimately the humiliation of the Cross, the best way of doing this is to be truthful and honest about ourselves, to face up to the reality of who we are, to remember that we are dust and to dust we will return, to be truthful, to be honest about what we do and who we are, without this we cannot even begin to pray authentically, because must be grounded in absolute honesty, we cannot live a lie in the face of God.

Perhaps this Lent for all of us our Lenten penance should be about scrupulous authenticity: honesty about who we are, integrity about our relationship with Christ, even if it brings us disadvantage, humiliation, pain, suffering, even death.
Father Blake links this call for Lenten authenticity to the witness of a group of twenty-one Coptic Christians who were recently beheaded on a beach on Libya by militant Islamists affiliated with ISIS. Last summer I noted that iconoclasm kills, and the victims of the current wave of iconoclasm represented by ISIS have included the vulnerable Christian communities of Iraq and Syria and, it now appears, Egyptian Christians as well. Though I have been following this tragedy for a long time, I have been particularly moved in recent days by the testimony of Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda, who laments that, after centuries of faithful perseverance in the face of persecution, "We are now facing the extinction of Christianity as a religion and as a culture from Mesopotamia." If more is not done to confront ISIS and others who wish to eradicate ancient Christian communities, I fear that Archbishop Warda's warning will quickly become applicable not only to Iraqi Christians but to Christians throughout the Middle East.

Considering the fate of the Copts beheaded in Libya, I have also been struck by some comments which Pope Francis made regarding their deaths. During a meeting with the leaders of the Church of Scotland, the Pope declared that the blood of the murdered Copts offers "a testimony which cries out to be heard," adding that "[t]heir blood confesses Christ. As we recall these brothers and sisters who died only because they confessed Christ, I ask that we encourage each another to go forward with this ecumenism which is giving us strength, the ecumenism of blood." Seen in the light of history, the notion of an "ecumenism of blood" is very provocative; one wonders whether the Scottish Presbyterians to whom the Pope addressed his remarks this week would readily acknowledge the Christian witness of someone like the Scottish Catholic martyr John Ogilvie - or, for that matter, what they would say about the suffering which Mary, Queen of Scots endured for refusing to renounce her Catholic faith.

Explicit talk about an ecumenism of blood may be relatively new, but it is not without precedent. Germany offers the example of the Lübeck Martyrs, a group of three Catholic priests and one Lutheran pastor who were executed together in November 1943 for their principled Christian opposition to National Socialism. In this context, I also can't help but think of the example of practical ecumenism offered by the White Rose movement, whose Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant members based their opposition to Nazism on a shared reading of Augustine, Aquinas, and John Henry Newman, and who died together for their common convictions. Reaching a bit further back, one might find another example of ecumenical martyrdom in the hundreds of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians who were killed in China during the Boxer Rebellion and in other outbreaks of anti-Christian violence during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

For another take on what the ecumenism of blood might mean today, let us consider the following take offered by The Economist, which acknowledges the doctrinal differences that make talk of 'ecumenical martyrdom' theologically problematic while also pointing out that the world's divided Christians are increasingly drawn together by hostile circumstances:
People who cannot come together for a ritual of sacrifice in a church are being cast by circumstances into a single, dire community of fate. In one sense, that very fact renders their differences irrelevant. It also challenges people living in safer circumstances to work harder on tearing barriers down.
Though I do not agree that the fact of persecution makes doctrinal differences "irrelevant," I do believe that the sense in which all Christians are targeted by groups like ISIS should force us to think more urgently about the meaning of Christian solidarity. For ISIS, it matters not that their Christian victims are Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant - what matters is that they profess a faith in Christ which they will maintain even at the loss of their lives. Perhaps particularly during the Lenten season, those of us who are privileged to find ourselves "in safer circumstances" would do well to think about how we can more effectively express our solidarity with those for whom a public profession of faith is truly a matter of life or death.

Reaching back to the words from Father Ray Blake cited at the start of this post, I would suggest that we make this Lent a time to redouble our efforts to live authentically as Christians. Our Lenten task must always include the challenging work of self-examination, as we seek to root out that within ourselves which prevents us from following Christ more closely. This year, perhaps we can give special attention to the question of how - or even whether - we live out our faith in public. We might also consider how we can express our solidarity with those who suffer for their faith in other parts of the world, perhaps particularly by supporting the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and other groups working to aid Christians in the Middle East. As we seek during these forty days to confront once again the truth about ourselves, may we also seek to live more fully the truths of our faith. AMDG.