Half a millennium after the beginning of a movement that caused both reform and deep divisions in Western Christendom, Christians worldwide are being asked to reflect on the theme of reconciliation.
The year 2017 is being hailed by many Christians as marking the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, because it was on Oct. 31, 1517 that Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses, a document highly critical of many of the church practices of his time, to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. Many see Luther’s act as setting in motion the creation of the Lutheran and other Protestant churches-as well as a series of bloody religious wars.
The Council of Churches in Germany (ACK) was invited by the World Council of Churches to prepare materials for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Mindful of the anniversary, the ACK decided the materials it created should have two “accents”-one of celebration, the other of reconciliation, according to an introduction to the materials on the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) website.
“On the one hand, there should be a celebration of God’s love and grace, reflecting the main concern of the churches marked by Martin Luther’s Reformation,” the website states. “On the other hand, the materials should also recognize the pain of the subsequent deep divisions which afflicted the Church, and offer an opportunity to take steps toward reconciliation.”
Organizers ultimately chose a phrase used in a 2013 statement issued by Pope Francis, “The Love of Christ Compels Us” (2 Cor. 5:14). The biblical passage in which this phrase is found, according to the CCC, “emphasizes that reconciliation is a gift from God, intended for the entire creation…The love of Christ compels us to pray, but also to move beyond our prayers for unity among Christians. Congregations and churches need the gift of God’s reconciliation as a wellspring of life.”
An ecumenical worship service planned for the Week of Prayer includes, as a symbol of reconciliation, the building up and tearing down of a wall. Members of the congregation will build the wall out of shoeboxes or similar items, each marked with the name of a division-fostering sin, such as contempt or intolerance. After a sermon and prayer for reconciliation, participants will dismantle the wall, laying out the shoebox “stones” in the shape of a cross.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity takes place every year from January 18-January 25. It began in 1908 as an observance within the Roman Catholic Church, but has been adopted by many other Christian denominations since the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948.