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Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2012

Reflections by Tamara Grdzelidze, programme executive of the WCC Commission on Faith and Order on Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

23 January 2012

Reflections preached at the Ecumenical Center, Geneva, 23 January

The Old and New Testament readings of today (Habakkuk 3 :17-19, 1Cor. 15 : 51-58, John 12 :23-26) teach us the glorification of our Lord in whom we are united. But this teaching comes with a number of challenging mental exercises.

The text of the prophet Habakkuk, from the seventh century before Christ, concentrates on the question: why does God behave unjustly to the righteous while protecting the wicked? And the answer to it reads: in his own way and at his chosen time God deals with the wicked; but the righteous shall live by their faith.

Faith in God, the Lord, is the foundation of one’s salvation. Even in times of financial crisis, as today’s verses from Habakkuk demonstrate – trees do not bear fruit, olive is not produced, neither flock nor herd is available - human beings rejoice in the Lord of salvation by believing that God is their strength, so much so that even in times of hardship, the prophet says that God grants us the swiftness of a deer so that we tread upon the heights.

Here we come to the first mental challenge from today’s readings, the first antinomy; antinomy is one of the most remarkable characteristics of the Christian thinking – the affirmation of the non- opposition of opposites. We read in the prophecy that in spite of the difficult living conditions, our faith makes us tread upon the heights.

The reading from the Epistle, indeed, manifests the key antinomy of Christianity according to which defeat changes into victory, crucifixion into resurrection, and death - in a twinkling of an eye - into life. In his first Letter to the Corinthians Paul, thus, reveals a secret to them; he says: “I will tell you a mystery”, a hidden thing and proclaims an unheard story of the dead changing, in a twinkling of an eye, at a last trumpet; the perishable body putting on imperishability and the mortal body putting on immortality. These will occur, he says, as a result of the fact that “death has become swallowed up in victory!”

The second antinomy of today’s readings is foundational to our faith: we are united through our faith in the victorious resurrection of our Lord. At the same time, this is one of those passages where one struggles to reconcile the insignificance of the Law, the Mosaic Law, in the face of true faith. (verse 56)  “The sting of death is sin, the power of sin is the Law”.  In the Letter to the Romans (4:13) Paul explains that God’s promise to inherit the world did not come through the Law but through the righteousness of faith. Thus the promise of the inheritance of the world comes true through faith; and these are the faithful whom God makes to tread upon the heights under any circumstances! Death is trampled down by death, and through this victory God has given everlasting life over the perishable body.

And then again, in the Gospel reading we see another antinomy – grain falls into the earth and dies and then bears fruit; or, those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. How can we hate our life when we dearly love it?

This difficult antinomy will be impossible to resolve without reading and reflecting over earlier passages from Habakkuk and 1Corinthians. One looses a smaller thing for a more significant one: a grain changes into fruit, death changes into everlasting life. What is needed is steadfastness in faith and excelling in the work of the Lord because that labour will not be in vain; Jesus says: “whoever serves me must follow me,… and the Father will honour.”

Any difficulty arising on the way of our spiritual life cannot be resolved without seeing it as a part of an antinomy in which our faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ incarnate and resurrected, is irreplaceable. It also means that any difficulty can be swallowed up by faith and changed into a life-giving source.

As a short appendix to this reflection, and pretty much in the context of today’s theme, I would like to remind some of you and introduce to others a proposal to remember during an ecumenical prayer service well known, as well as less known, members of the Cloud of Witnesses.

In the context of Poland, as the country which assisted to the preparation of the worship outline of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2012, I would like to draw your attention to one of their witnesses- Maximilian Kolbe. He was beatified in 1971 in the presence of a person whose place he took in a gas chamber in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz in 1941.

The beatification itself was found controversial by many since the cause of his martyrdom was not a straightforward defence of the faith. In 1982 Maximilian Kolbe was canonised by Pope John Paul II and was declared a martyr of charity and “the patron saint of our difficult century”, of the 20th; the Roman Catholic tradition sees Maximilian Kolbe as the patron saint of drug addicts, political prisoners, prisoners, journalists.

This Polish Franciscan friar was a learned monk, studied at the Pontifical University in Rome and dedicated most of his life to promoting education. During the Second World War he gave shelter to the persecuted people, including Jews.

Maximilian Kolbe is one of the twentieth century martyrs, together with nine other persons, whose statues were placed at the end of the last century in Westminster Abbey in London, above the Great West Door.

His death marks a victory of Christian charity over violence and hatred towards God’s creation.

Indeed, to follow the Lord, to serve Him and attain the honour of victory over death, we are called to the unity in our faith in its manifold expressions whether charitable, prayerful, meditative, active or pro-active. Unity in faith is indeed victory over the hatred, wickedness, idle talk, sloth.

May the faith in God our Lord grant us the love of our neighbour and the courage to listen and be heard, and the power to tread over the heights under any circumstances.

In our concrete situation when the surrounding Alps and Jura are covered by snow, we are given a good opportunity to try it.

Tamara Grdzelidze
Programme executive of the WCC Commission on Faith and Order
World Council of Churches