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Homily during morning prayer at the Ecumenical Centre

Reflection on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2018 by Dr Ani Ghazaryan Drissi, WCC Faith and Order programme executive.

22 January 2018

Monday morning prayer during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2018

Dear guests, dear friends and colleagues, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, good morning!

January is a month when Christians around the world pay particular attention to the unity of the church. Specifically, Christians dedicate an entire week during this month to pray for unity among the followers of Jesus and especially to overcome historical and present divisions that exist between church communities.

The traditional date for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (WPCU) is January 18 to 25. The eight days has been celebrated continuously since 1894 when the Pope Leo XIII encouraged an Octave of Prayer for Unity. In preparation for the WPCU, ecumenical partners in a particular region are asked to prepare a basic text on a biblical theme. Then an international group organized through the World Council of Churches (WCC) and The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) edit this text which is jointly published by the PCPCU and the WCC, through the Commission on Faith and Order. The final material is sent to member churches and Roman Catholic dioceses, and they are invited to translate the text and contextualize it for their own use.

The theme for the 2018 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes to us from the Caribbean region: “Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power” we read in Exodus 15:6. The Caribbean ecumenical churches chose the song of Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15:1-21) — a song of triumph over oppression — as the motif of this year's Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Back to the history, we know that the contemporary Caribbean region is a complex reality. The region’s vast geographical spread includes a rich and diverse tapestry of ethnic, linguistic and religious traditions. It is also a complex political reality with a variety of governmental and constitutional arrangements, ranging from colonial dependencies to republican nation states. The contemporary Caribbean is deeply marked by the dehumanizing project of colonial exploitation. The colonisers codified brutal systems, which traded human beings, and their forced labour. Initially, these practices enslaved and destroyed and in some cases eliminated the region’s indigenous peoples. This was followed by the enslavement of Africans and the “indentureship” of people from India and China. At each stage, the systems of the colonisers attempted to strip subjugated peoples of their unchallengeable rights: their identity, their human dignity, their freedom and their self-determination.

As I already mentioned, this year, the Caribbean churches based its theme on the Song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15 and related the text to the Caribbean experience of slavery, colonialism and liberation. The 8 days prayer cycle will include themes of human dignity, the modern day slavery of human trafficking, economic, justice, and family life, among others.

In choosing the theme of God’s glorious deliverance from oppression the Caribbean authors sought to link action for liberation and justice by Christians with the purpose of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which focuses on the commitment of Christians to work and pray for unity, as Jesus prayed this intention for the Church, recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 17.

On the other hand, the Caribbean Christians of many different traditions see the hand of God active in the ending of enslavement. It is a uniting experience of the saving action of God, which brings freedom. For this reason the song of Moses and Miriam (Ex 15:1-21), as the motif of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2018 has been chosen. It is a song of triumph over oppression.

If we look closely the verses 1-3 of chapter 15 emphasize the praise of God: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (15:2). In the song, led by Moses and Miriam, the Israelites sing the praises of the God who has freed them. They realize that the plan and purpose of God to set the people free cannot be frustrated. No forces not even Pharaoh’s chariots, army and trained military power could frustrate the will of God for his people to be free (15:4-5). In this joyful cry of praise, Christians from many different traditions recognize that God is the Saviour of us all, we delight that he has kept his promises, and continues to bring his salvation to us through the Holy Spirit. In the salvation that he brings we recognize that he is our God and we are all his people.

Like the Israelites, the people of the Caribbean have a song of victory and freedom to sing and it is a song, which unites them. However, contemporary challenges again threaten to enslave and again threaten the dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God. While human dignity is unchallengeable it is often obscured by both personal sin and social structures of sin. In our fallen world societal relationships too often lack the justice and compassion that honour human dignity. Poverty, violence, injustice, addiction to drugs and pornography, and the pain and suffering, which follow, are experiences that distort human dignity.

Many of the contemporary challenges are themselves the legacy of a colonial past and slave trade. The wounded collective awareness is manifested today in social problems related to low self-esteem, gang and domestic violence, and damaged familial relationships. Although a legacy of the past, these issues are also exacerbated by the contemporary reality that many would characterize as neo-colonialism. Under existing circumstances it seems almost impossible for many of the nations of this region to pull themselves out of poverty and debt. Moreover, in many places there is a residual legislative framework that continues to be discriminatory.

However, the right hand of God that brought the people out of slavery, gave continued hope and courage to the Israelites, as it continues to bring hope to the Christians of the Caribbean. They are not victims of circumstance. In witnessing to this common hope the churches are working together to minister to all peoples of the region, but particularly the most vulnerable and neglected. In the words of the hymn, “the right hand of God is planting in our land, planting seeds of freedom, hope and love”.

Exodus 15 allows us to see how the road to unity must often pass through a communal experience of suffering. The Israelites’ liberation from enslavement is the foundational event in the constitution of this people. For Christians this process climaxes with the incarnation and Paschal mystery. Although liberation/salvation is an initiative taken by God, God engages human agencies in the realization of his purpose and plan for the redemption of his people. Christians, through baptism, share in God’s ministry of reconciliation, but our own divisions hamper our witness and mission to a world in need of God’s healing.

I see in the resources prepared by the Caribbean churches a call to a post-colonial spirituality that contains together the struggle for Christian unity and the struggle for human liberation. As Christians let us answer to this call, let us come together this week and forever to pray and work together for a better world, for a world of liberation, freedom, for a world of justice and peace, for a world of unity and finally for a world of love.

Thank you for your attention.

Dr Ani Ghazaryan Drissi

WCC Faith and Order programme executive