In the introduction to this five-part series, I noted that I’m adopting Charles Van Engen’s ‘reinterpreted’ historical marks of the Church – Unifying, Sanctifying, Reconciling, and Proclaiming – to discuss them under the banner of liturgy. I’d like to concentrate in this piece on the first of those marks – unifying – and answer questions like, “What is unity? Is it uniformity? Does unity degrade tradition? Can unity-yet-diversity actually exist? What is the role of reconciliation in unifying liturgies? And how is the community of faith unified?”
Is unity uniformity?
Before I begin, let me be clear about the difference between the words unifying and uniform. After doing the hard work of historical research of the Christian liturgy, some liturgists may have the tendency to prescribe a uniform liturgy that all Christians can all understand and participate in. This, I believe, misrepresents the Christian faith and its diversity-bound-up-in-unity.
A push for uniformity degrades the identity of one’s tradition-ness. If we were to hypothetically create a uniform liturgy, this would nullify both the rich history and robust traditions of those communities. We would in essence be creating an ahistorical and atraditioned liturgy. In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we find a passionate Israelite trying to show why and how Gentiles and Jews can worship this Jesus, who “reconciled [Jew and Gentile] both to God in one body through the cross” (Eph. 2:16).
Like Paul and many, many before me, I am after unifying liturgies, not a uniform liturgy. I’m making a plea for Christian communities to embrace their tradition-ness and celebrate that diversity-in-unity found ultimately in Christ, his Word, and the Eucharist.
Unity assumes Reconciliation
Within the scriptural narrative, the theological theme of unity assumes reconciliation. And thus, where disunity abounds, reconciliation cannot be found. Hear the words of Jesus in the fifth chapter of Matthew: “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” According to Levitical law, the worshipper can only approach the altar because reconciliatory grace has already been offered. Hence, reconciliation brings about unity, and unity manifests the gift of reconciliation.
The Church is gathered in unity because of the reconciliation through the God-Man. Notice three of Paul’s metaphors when speaking about the Church: She is the Bride; She is the Body of Christ; She is a Family. A Bride cannot be a bride without the unifying relationship between Her and the Groom. The Body cannot be a body without the other members and Head unified and working together. The Family of Christ cannot be a family without the saintly fathers, pure daughters, wise elders, and gentle mothers united in Christ the Son.
Unity in the Eternal Word by His Word
Next, as we gather around the eternal Word made flesh, we are also gathered around the Holy Word. This is given from the One God who speaks to unify a people into one Bride, one Flesh, and one Family. For when we are called from the world, we are revealed to and thus know this three-in-one God (Jn. 17:6); for Jesus tells us that eternal life is wrapped up in acknowledging the presence of the revealing God (Jn. 17:3). So, when the Church gathers around the Word who reveals His words, we are made holy (Jn. 17:17-19). Remember: things that are holy are complete and whole, and things that are whole are unified.
Lastly, one of the ways the holy community celebrates this unity-amidst-diversity is through her participation in the Eucharist. The Corinthian church greatly struggled with unity. Favorited brothers and sisters overlooked weaker brothers and sisters, and wealthier brothers and sisters disassociated from poorer brothers and sisters (1 Cor. 11:17-22). After storying the Eucharist meal and how it is to be taken, Paul offers these wise words to all of our dysfunctional and conflicted churches: “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another – if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home – so that when you come together it will not be for judgment” (1 Cor. 11:33-34).
“Wait for one another,” says Paul. In other words, Christian love (agape) leads to Christian service (leitourgia) which reconciles with and unifies the body.
I can only imagine the setting at the next Eucharist meal after this letter was delivered. With Jesus’ words “the last will be first, and the first will be last” echoing in their heads, I see the lavished aristocrats and pedigree patricians leaned against walls patiently “waiting for” the dirty slaves, peasants, and farmhands to first eat of the Bread of Life and drink from the Cup of Salvation.
A Eucharistic meal participating in the reconciliation that unifies broken bodies.