Vespers (Evensong) Homily During the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity
Church of Saint Thomas, Fifth Avenue, New York
January 23, 2022
Your Grace, Bishop Allen Shin
Dear Canon Turner and Reverend Clergy,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
“How good and joyful a thing it is,” we prayed a few minutes ago, for brothers and sisters “to dwell together in unity.”
Our coming together to pray tonight is proper and pleasing to God the Father of us all through baptism.
It’s right and gratifying to God the Son, who prayed that we would be one.
It’s fitting and docile to the Holy Spirit, the personal unity between the Father and Son who seeks to help us resemble and experience the loving Trinitarian communion.
It’s meet and just to our Christian brothers and sisters across this city and the world who are begging the Lord that all of us attached to Christ the Vine might grow together more fruitfully as branches.
It is indeed good and joyful for us to be together tonight for this Festal Evensong during the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. I would like to thank your Rector for his gracious invitation and all of you for your warm welcome.
I would like to extend to you the best wishes of Pope Francis, whom I have the privilege to represent at the United Nations. At the beginning of Octave, the Pope urged all those those present with him in St. Peter’s Square to pray and to offer up their difficulties and sufferings for the unity of Christians, saying that, as pilgrims on the path to full unity, “we come closer to our goal the more we keep our gaze fixed on Jesus, our only Lord.”
To keep our gaze fixed on Jesus the Lord is something that the truly awe-inspiring Great Reredos [high altar] of this beautiful Church helps us to do. With the help of Bertram Goodhue’s and Lee Lawrie’s joint genius, we are able to enter into the eyes of Saint Thomas in the Upper Room as he beheld Jesus’ wounds, fell to his knees, and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”
That scene expresses, I think, not only the hope but also the path of Christians toward unity.
We remember what happened the evening of Easter Sunday. Jesus appeared to the ten apostles in the Upper Room. Judas Iscariot, tragically, had taken his life even before Jesus died on Calvary. Thomas, St. John tells us laconically, “was not with [the other apostles] when Jesus came” (Jn 20:24). He was not with them physically, but he was also not with them spiritually, and that spiritual separation would grow as soon as he returned.
When the ten told him with joy, “We have seen the Lord!,” Thomas refused to believe. He refused to accept the word of every single one of them, not to mention the testimony of Mary Magdalene and Cleopas and the other disciple from Emmaus. He refused to believe even Jesus himself, who had told him and the other apostles three times in the Gospel that he would be betrayed, crucified, die and on the third day — that very day — rise.
So as the ten shared with each other their sheer joy and amazement of the Resurrection, Thomas insisted he wouldn’t believe until he himself could see and probe the nail prints in his hands and reach into his pierced side. Thomas excluded himself from their communion, their happiness, their faith, and the fullness of the Christian life the first day, the second day, stubbornly persevering through the eighth day.
That’s when Jesus came again. He had prayed ten days earlier on Holy Thursday for God the Father to make the apostles one, and he clearly said why: “so that the world may know that you have sent me and that you love them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:23). Christ’s whole mission and the revelation of God’s love for us would totally hinge, Jesus said, on the unity of believers. And so Jesus could not permit Thomas to remain obstinate in disunity.
Thus eight days afterward, Jesus entered the closed doors of the Upper Room, wished “Shalom!” anew to the ten apostles and then turned to Thomas, who this time at least was dwelling together in physical unity with the others. He gave him the opportunity, if he wished, to examine his wounds and told him, “Do not go on unbelieving, but believe!” (Jn 20:27).
Thomas believed. He confessed his faith in Jesus’ divinity. And united with the other apostles, and strengthened by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, he went forth to proclaim “one Body, one Spirit, one Hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” (Eph 4:3-6), as St. Paul would later synthesize.
The path from separation to unity happened, for Thomas, when he fixed his gaze on Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead. Believing in and confessing Jesus as Lord and God brought him inexorably into communion with the other apostles. And Jesus revealed himself to Thomas precisely so that he would go from doubt to faith and from isolation to communion.
Tonight we have come to fix our gaze on Jesus, our only Lord, to behold him in this Reredos as Thomas did. We lift up our eyes from that scene to the Cross on which Jesus sought to “draw all men to himself” (Jn 12:32) and “reconcile all things to himself, … making peace through the blood of his Cross” (Col 1:20). We let our gaze climb even higher, to the image of Christ the King, gloriously reigning in the Church triumphant, where the communion of saints within the interpersonal loving communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, will reach eternal consummation. We gaze on Jesus crucified, risen and reigning and recognize that he is gazing on us, calling us to journey together toward that communion he died, rose and ascended to give us, and through that communion, convince the world of his divinity in our humanity and of the depth of the Father’s reconciling and unifying love.
The lack of unity among Christians comes when we take our eyes, at least partially, off of Jesus. We put ourselves in the center. We obsess about our projects, our problems, our ambitions, our wounds and grievances, our doubts and sorrows, our fears and limitations, our will, instead of the Lord’s. We need, rather, to gaze on Jesus, to listen to Jesus, to will what he wills and do he asks.
The theme of this year’s Week of Prayer For Christian Unity was proposed by the Middle East Council of Churches and came originally from the Churches in Lebanon, where I was Papal Nuncio for eight years and where the people, as you know, are in particular need of our prayers and concrete support. The theme is taken from the words of the wise men, “We saw the star in the East and came to worship Him” (Mt 2:2). They saw a star and set out on a lengthy journey. They didn’t know what awaited them along the path. They didn’t know where their travels would end. They may not have even known each other very well before the journey. But they journeyed together with faith, following the star, and seeking to pay homage to the one they believed the star symbolized, the newborn king of the Jews.
In a similar way, we need to be willing to make a journey. Jesus has put that desire for Christian unity as a rising star before us and wants that we get up and journey toward him together, to gaze upon him as the wise men did, to pour out our gifts before him, to worship him as he desires to be adored.
The Holy Spirit, whom God promised through Ezekiel to put within us, has been poured out upon the Church. Tonight we turn to him and ask his help.
He has been sent to embolden us to journey together following the star of Jesus’ prayer for unity.
He has been poured out upon us so that with our eyes, ears, noses, mouths, faces, beards and clothing, we might recognize how good it is for us, as brothers and sisters of the Lord and each other, to dwell together in unity.
He has come so that each of us, like St. Thomas, might recognize the reality and power of Jesus’ Resurrection, enter fully into spiritual communion with Christ and the other apostles, confess in unison Jesus as Lord and God, convince the world by that unity of the existence and love of God, and inspire them to enter into it now and forever.
May the Holy Spirit bless us all with that divine gift!
To watch the video of the Evensong, please visit https://vimeo.com/666567383