Lenten ecumenism and the ecumenical Lent

I have now read a number of wonderful reflections on Ash Wednesday from different places and perspectives. This rich piece from Kate Mahon deserves an hour of your week, for example: “Rend your hearts: How to break your heart this Lent.”

Another is an excerpt from Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church posted today, “Ash.”

We are made of stardust, the scientists say—the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, and the chlorine in our skin forged in the furnaces of ancient stars whose explosions scattered the elements across the galaxy. From the ashes grew new stars, and around one of them, a system of planets and asteroids and moons. A cluster of dust coalesced to form the earth, and life emerged from the detritus of eight billion- year-old deaths.

The cosmic frame of reference she begins with is really striking. It both recalls her location in Dayton, Tennessee (the origin of the Scopes Monkey Trial and thus a symbolic heart of the conflict between science and Christian doctrine in the South) and foreshadows her emphasis on the unity of humanity.

A lenticular galaxy from the Hubble Telescope (NGC 1277).
By ESA/Hubble, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46758561

Our solidarity in wearing our cosmic ashes, whether we have gained them through today’s liturgy or through surviving terror and grief, is a reminder that humanity was created as one, we have sinned as one, we repent as one, and by God’s mercy we will be redeemed as one.

When I read this, I was reminded of the strong words of Unitatis Redintegratio, that the longing for the eschatological unity of the Body of Christ is one of the marks of the church:

All however, though in different ways, long for the one visible Church of God, a Church truly universal and set forth into the world that the world may be converted to the Gospel and so be saved, to the glory of God (1).

What’s more, listening to the perspectives and even critiques of Christians who are separated from the Catholic Church gives a needed widening of the perspective, which even helps in the renewal that the church always needs.

Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church (5).

One of Rachel Held Evans’ most evident spiritual gifts is her vulnerability, her willingness (even eagerness, it sometimes seems) to be wounded by a truth that comes to her painfully from outside her own circle. Here, her vision both gives new insight into Ash Wednesday and reminds me of the truth offered to me by those who reject my faith:

Once a year, on a Wednesday, we mix ashes with oil. We light candles and confess to one another and to God that we have sinned by what we have done and what we have left undone.  We tell the truth. Then we smear the ashes on our foreheads and together acknowledge the single reality upon which every  Catholic and Protestant, believer and atheist, scientist and mystic can agree: “Remember that you are dust and to dust and to dust you will return.” It’s the only thing we know for sure: we will die (Rachel Held Evans, “Ash”).

In a sense, ecumenism is first and foremost a spiritual discipline, and ecumenical dialogue is a kind of Lent for the universal church. As we practice ecclesial and personal disciplines, look toward Easter 2016 and the eschatological resurrection feast, let us also look for and pray for the unity of the church in history. This paragraph of Unitatis Redintegratio alone is worth at least one Lent of reflection.

There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds, from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way. We should therefore pray to the Holy Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble, gentle in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity towards them. St. Paul says: “I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace”. This exhortation is directed especially to those raised to sacred Orders precisely that the work of Christ may be continued. He came among us “not to be served but to serve” (Unitatis Redintegratio 7).

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