A few months ago, I wrote about ecumenism as a hard call. I talked about a few of the difficulties of living with the reality of Christ’s broken Body.
Recently, I’ve found myself confronting a very specific aspect of the lack of Christian unity. It might sound petty. It might sound odd. But for me it is something that I run up against on a near daily basis.
Ecumenism is uncomfortable.
I really started confronting this in myself a few months ago. One of my dearest friends was getting married, and I was to stand up in her wedding. She and her now-husband are Roman Catholic; I’m Byzantine Catholic. They are devout Catholics who I know to have strong prayer lives, strong relationships with Jesus. I was happy that they were marrying.
But as the wedding drew closer, I had to confront something about the wedding liturgy and (more so) about myself. A few people had tried to condole with me about the difficulties of being a happy bridesmaid while feeling hopelessly single. But the reality was that I wasn’t jealous of my friend’s big day. Now, much of that is due to my love of her, but a bit of it also has to do with the fact that I do not want the wedding that she had. I want a traditional Byzantine wedding, and that isn’t what my friend had. Her wedding came and went; it was a beautiful celebration of the couple’s love for the Lord and for one another. But it was also a wedding that made me uncomfortable.
The wedding was very Western as is meet and just. They are Roman Catholics. It made sense that their wedding would reflect their faith tradition. And that meant that it didn’t look like my tradition. They took vows. They knelt. Guys, I had to kneel during the wedding liturgy. I was uncomfortable. As an Eastern Christian, I don’t kneel during liturgies. I love that my faith tradition allows me to make a profound bow during the consecration. Kneeling is a sign of humility, and I don’t object to it. But it is not my tradition.
I wasn’t in my tradition. I wasn’t in my “home space,” but rather I was a guest in my friends’ tradition. And we all know that the old saying says, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” So I chose love. I did something that made me uncomfortable. I don’t love kneeling during a liturgy, but that is Roman tradition. Our liturgies are different, and some of those differences can make me a little uncomfortable. I’m sure that my friends feel the same way in my church. It’s okay to be uncomfortable or to not understand a friend’s tradition.
Ecumenism calls us to love and respect our Christian brothers regardless of their traditions. This doesn’t meant that we live our shared lives boiled down to the common denominator(s). It means that we love one another actively. It means that we embrace what we share. We have a common Eucharist? Great, let’s celebrate that. We have a common Easter? Let’s find a way to celebrate together. We both really love St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians? Let’s talk about that.
Ecumenism also means that we need to learn about our differences and accept them. We can’t just shove them under the rug and pretend that they aren’t there. We need to work through them. Every now and again, I have very selfish moments in which I think that it would be better if I never married because none of my (maybe-possibly-someday) bridesmaids will be Eastern Christians and thereby will have no clue how to participate in my wedding liturgy. If I don’t marry, none of us will have to deal with awkward details like proper reception of the Eucharist or why there are no vows or whether to bow or genuflect. If I don’t get married, everyone will be spared a whole host of uncomfortable moments arising from ecumenical differences.
But at the same time, isn’t it important for us to see our differences? If we see them, then we can discuss them. We can talk about why there aren’t vows in the Byzantine wedding service and why they exist in the Roman service. We can talk about the differences between kneeling and standing during the consecration, the differences between bowing and genuflecting. These discussions can provide deeper understanding both of one’s own faith tradition and of those of friends. We can learn from one another and grow closer to unity through those moments.
The Lord calls us to unity. He does not call us to be a batch of perfect cookie-cutter Christians. On the eve of his Sacrifice, he did not pray that we would all be exactly the same. He prayed, rather, that we would be one as the Trinity is one. Each member of the Trinity is unique, and so we are called not to a unity of sameness but to a unity of diversity. This is hard. This requires being uncomfortable. But if we do this, then we can be a Church in whom the Father can rest well pleased.
So let’s embrace the uncomfortable, and let’s do it for love.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brethren to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Running down on the beard,
The beard of Aaron,
Running down on the edge of his garments.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
Descending upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the Lord commanded the blessing—