JERUSALEM – From January 21-29, 2017, the Christians of Jerusalem gathered in common prayers, showing their desire to gather around Christ. So, each day a church of the Holy City welcomed the faithful and the representatives of each confession and rite.
This year again, many faithful of the Holy Land responded to the call of unity. In Jerusalem, the week of prayer for Christian unity traditionally begins after January 19, the date of the Armenian Church’s Christmas festival, which is a few days after the official, symbolically established Christian Unity Week from January 18, the Feast of the Chair of Peter in Rome, through January 25, the feast of the conversion of St. Paul.
This tradition goes back to the last century when, in 1908, the Anglican priest Fr. Paul Watson wanted to reunite American Christians around the Catholic Holy See of Rome during an “octave” of prayer. Towards the 1930s, in Lyon, “the octave” became “the week”, according to the wish of the Abbot Paul Couturier to make the initiative accessible to all Christians, and not only to Catholics.
As the communique of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity states: “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.” This Pontifical Council, together with the World Council of Churches, is at the origin of an international and interfaith commission which meets every year to prepare the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, each time choosing a new theme, often taken from a verse of the Bible, the texts of Scripture and the prayers of the week.
This year, it was the urgency of reconciliation that was placed at the heart of the week with the theme: “Reconciling us: The love of Christ compels us” (2 Cor 5: 14-20). For Protestants, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which followed the publication of Luther’s 95 theses. This decisive reforming movement has profoundly influenced the Western Church. During the prayer service that took place in the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, the new bishop of Jerusalem, Ibrahim Azar was accompanied by Bishop Munib Younan, the president of the Lutheran World Federation, whose homily based on the biblical passage of St. Paul’s conversion (Acts 9: 1-19) called for unity, especially here in Jerusalem.
In Jerusalem, “a city of peace” torn apart by violence and divisions, this week of prayer is of unique importance. The city that witnessed the death and resurrection of Christ is a mosaic of different Christian denominations. From the Holy Sepulcher to the Greek Catholic Church of the Annunciation, to St. George’s Anglican Cathedral, the Armenian Saint James Cathedral, the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, the Latin parish church of St. Savior, the Cenacle, the Orthodox Coptic Church of St. Anthony and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Christians were able to live moments of reconciliation. Each church received the believers according to its own ritual, with its own traditional songs: a chorus of Armenian men, Latin hymns of the Franciscans, a Lutheran soprano, a Byzantine choir, Arabic songs, etc.
At the heart of each celebration was the exchange of peace. Other symbolic gestures also punctuated the various celebrations: at the Anglican Cathedral of St. George, for example, the renewal of baptismal vows and the lighting of candles, a light that the faithful received from the hands of the bishops present.
The praying of the Our Father, each in his own language, as also were eight intercessory prayers. Thus united in their diversities, believers expressed their commitment to Jesus Christ, “our hope and our joy,” as stated in the universal prayer prayed at the Latin parish church of St. Savior in Arabic, Italian, English, French, German, Spanish, and Hebrew. After the celebrations, the faithful were also invited to continue this fraternal sharing around a glass of friendship, sharing bread and wine.
The week of prayer concluded at the Greek Catholic church on Sunday, January 29. The Melkite bishop Joseph-Jules Zerey urged the faithful to continue untiringly to work for unity: “that reconciliation and unity between us form a source of life-giving water that turns into a river of sweet water which quenches the world thirsty for faith in the living God!”
Cover picture: © Nadim Asfour
Photos of the week:
Saturday, Jan. 28: Orthodox Ethiopian Church © Nadim Asfour