News flash! AP ends the Great Schism of 1054!

Many moons ago — just under a quarter of a century — I covered a major ecumenical event in the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. I believe it was a festive Divine Eucharist marking the departure of Bishop William C. Frey, as he exited to serve as dean and president of the Trinity School for Ministry.

One of the honored participants in the service was Denver Archbishop J. Francis Stafford, who was a national level figure in Catholic ecumenical efforts (and today is a cardinal serving at the Vatican). It was natural for Stafford to be there, in large part because he had a positive working relationship with the charismatic Frey, who was a traditionalist on key doctrinal issues that affected ecumenical work in public life.

Stafford took part in the first half of the service, but did not formally vest to take part in the Holy Eucharist itself. As the rite moved into the sacramental prayers of the Mass, the Catholic archbishop moved to the side of the auditorium — where a prie dieu had been placed, allowing him to respectfully kneel in solitary prayer.

The symbolism was important: Stafford was there in prayer, but because the Catholic and Anglican churches are not in Communion, with a large “C,” he could not take part in the celebration of the Mass (with female priests, for example) or receive Communion. Stafford was there as a show of unity, to the degree allowed by the doctrines of the two churches.

I thought of this scene in the past while reading the current Associated Press report about the Vatican announcement that Pope Francis would visit the Holy Land this coming May. Of course, AP interpreted this move in terms of politics, as well as in ecumenical terms:

(VATICAN CITY) – Pope Francis says his upcoming trip to the Holy Land aims to boost relations with Orthodox Christians. But the three-day visit in May also underscores Francis’ close ties to the Jewish community, his outreach to Muslims and the Vatican’s longstanding call for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The announcement was made Sunday just as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a new U.S. bid for peace.

Frankly, I will be shocked if the pope does not use this trip as an opportunity to spotlight the waves of persecution affecting Christians, and the faithful in other religious minorities, throughout the wider region — especially from Egypt to Pakistan.

But the mention of the Eastern Orthodox in the lede was significant. Then, later in the piece, there is this:

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A boring, non-sacramental Christmas in Syria

I hope all of our readers who celebrate Christmas are having a blessed one. As I prepared for my church’s Lessons and Carols service on Christmas Eve (where the youngest Hemingway made her choir debut), my thoughts turned to Christians elsewhere in the world where Christmas is not just a time to celebrate God made flesh but also a time to fear bombings or violence. This Reuters piece headlined “Christmas brings fear of church bombs in Nigeria” begins:

Kneeling over a dusty grave on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital, 16-year old Hope Ehiawaguan says a prayer, lays down flowers and tearfully tells her brother she loves him.

He was one of 44 killed on Christmas Day last year when a member of Islamist sect Boko Haram rammed a car packed with explosives into the gates of St Theresa’s Church in Madalla, a satellite town 25 miles from the center of Abuja.

Boko Haram has killed hundreds in its campaign to impose sharia law in northern Nigeria and is the biggest threat to stability in Africa’s top oil exporter.

Two other churches were bombed that day and on Christmas Eve 2010 over 40 people were killed in similar attacks.

But such is the commitment to religion in a country with Africa’s largest Christian population that millions of people will pack out thousands of churches in the coming days. It is impossible to protect everyone, security experts say.

“I feel safe,” Ehiawaguan says with uncertainty, when asked if she will come to church on December 25 this year.

“Not because of security here … because we have a greater security in heaven,” she says, wiping away her tears.

I say it all the time, but Reuters is a valuable source for religion news outside of the United States and Europe. The quotes the reporter got are theological even as the story itself blends politics and other aspects of culture. That story is much more substantive than this 24-second bit on the Pope decrying violence in Syria that was on CBS.

Sadly, terrorists did manage to kill 12 Christians, according to this CNS report:

Gunmen shot dead six Christians and set fire to an evangelical church in the northern state of Yobe, police said. Wire reports said the pastor was among the dead in the midnight attack.

Separately, a Baptist church in neighboring Borno state was attacked. Nigeria’s The Nation said six church members were killed.

But it was this BBC story that left me less than impressed with its headline and lede. The headline:

Syria crisis: Low-key Christmas for Christians

The lede:

During the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples that the bread and wine he shares with them represents his body and his blood.

“This is my body, which is given for you,” he says. “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In Syria, the real blood of civilians was mixed with real bread in Halfiya, the day before Christmas Eve, according to opposition activists. They say the civilians were bombed by a government warplane as they were queuing at a bakery, killing some 90 of them.

OK. So the entire story is sad, with people refusing to speak with reporters or give their name for fear of being targeted. We learn that minority areas, including those dominated by Christians are being targeted by the government. The already-small population of Christians is fleeing the country. Is describing this simply as a “low-key Christmas” appropriate? What a boring headline for the reality of what Christians in Syria are dealing with this Christmas.

In any case, I don’t know where the Beeb reporter got her info, but Christians in Syria do not believe that Jesus told his disciples that “the bread and wine he shares with them represents his body and his blood.” Traditional Christian belief is that in the Eucharist we receive the actual body and blood of Christ.

The teaching that communion only represents Christ’s body and blood is certainly present among some Christians, but not among Orthodox Christians.

To further compound the error by saying “the real blood of civilians was mixed with real bread in Halfiya” is just insulting to those sacramental Christians who believe we partake in the real body and blood of Christ.

I know, I know, I shouldn’t be surprised. But how would a reporter not know this? I’d more expect a reporter to mock traditional Christians for this belief than be ignorant of it.


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