By Cian Molloy - 22 January, 2018
‘That all may be free’ is the theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which uses Chapter 15 of the Book of Exodus as its theme.
That chapter is ‘a song of triumph over oppression’, says Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin and indeed, that chapter begins: “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord, ‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him’.”
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has been taking place in Britain and Ireland since 1908, when it was inaugurated by Fr Paul Wattson, co-founder of the Graymoor Franciscan Friars. Although called ‘a week’, it is actually an octave, as it runs for eight days from 18th January, to the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul on 25th January.
In Dublin, it was the turn of the Catholic Church to host the inaugural event this year. Archbishop Martin invited the local church leaders of nine other Christian denominations to join him at the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Killiney last Thursday.
Dr Jessie Rogers, a lecturer in Sacred Scripture at Maynooth, gave the address at Our Lady’s and, in her talk, she directly referred to the scripture quotation in her meditation. “This snippet from the Song of the Sea gives us a glimpse of the celebration of the Hebrew slaves when they realised that they were really and truly free,” she said. “But this is only the beginning of the journey of the people of God. They have been set free from bondage, yes, but also set free for something: to be the people that God has created them to be, a community of people with value and dignity. The hand of God that leads them out of Egypt leads them to the holy mountain in the desert where God will covenant with them. Here they receive instructions for living in freedom.”
According to Dr Rogers, the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt is the story that shaped Jesus, because: “It is the story of the God who hears the cries of the oppressed, and who reaches out to save them. It is the story by which story Jesus lived – and died.”
However, she said it was easy to misinterpret the Exodus story as an ‘us versus them’ tale of the people of God triumphing over their opponents. She added, “We also misunderstand the story when we replicate the oppressive system of Pharaoh, where the wealth and security of the few is secured at the cost of the more vulnerable, and yet still believe that God is on our side.”
This is important to remember in the work of Christian Unity, Dr Rogers said, because when we are turned in on ourselves, ‘we become obsessed by the different accents with which we speak the language of our common faith’.
“When we take our eyes off where God is at work in the world and become consumed by our own comfort, or power, or influence, then the mosaic that is God’s people in the world, the wondrous unity in diversity that God is fashioning, begins to fall apart,” she said.
“It is when we reach out beyond our comfort zone, when we work side by side, joining in God’s work in the world, that we are drawn closer together. When we try to encounter God in our worship but close our hearts to those to whom God’s ear is attuned and for whom God’s heart bleeds, we will end up praying to ourselves. But when we reach out, we will encounter God. And when we reach out together, we will encounter God together. And when we encounter God together we encounter each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, as beloved family.”