World Council of Churches (WCC)

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- by Martin Hoegger -

In 2016, I met various leaders of the World Council of Churches (WCC) to present them the vision of Jesus Celebration 2033 (JC2033) and to listen to their feedback. Together with Olivier Fleury the director of the association who has also spoken personally with Olav Fykse Tveit, the general secretary of the WCC.

We were on the most part, welcomed quite warmly. Some expressed their surprise and reluctance, though they gradually warmed up to the idea with the realisation of the potential this project has towards Church unity.

Since the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus-Christ, every year is “a year of grace” (Luke 4,19). However with the year 2000 we have entered into a special time. Every year in some sense becomes a jubilee year. The jubilee of his birth, of his childhood, and the youthful years of Jesus. The year 2030 will be a jubilee marking the 2000 years of the start of his ministry. We are presently in those so called “hidden years” of the God-man in Nazareth!

Unfortunately there was no great celebration in the year 2000 as a jubilee of Jesus’ birth. Neither was there any ecumenical process bringing together the worldwide church. There were some churches however who were very active, the Catholic church being one of them. Yorgo Lemopoulos, the deputy to the general secretary of the WCC, confessed that it was one of his biggest disappointments during his tenure at the WCC. “It is a good thing to prepare these many years before the year 2033. JC2033 is preparing the way and this is good” he said.

Before us, lie a series of symbolic dates, according to Martin Robra a special counsellor to the general secretary: The year 2017 reminds us of the internal rift that was created within the church separating into Catholic and Reformed branches. The year 2054 will be a reminder of the 1000 years schism between the East and West. These divisions must be overcome if possible. For the young churches and the Pentecostal churches, these dates don’t mean a whole lot. In figures, this comprises almost half of modern day Christianity.

2033 will concern everyone and will be recognized above everything else as an incredible opportunity for church unity. Just as the year 2048 will be the traditional date for the 2000 years of the first council in Jerusalem.

The missiological challenges of JC2033

For Jooseop Keum, director of the WCC’s Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME). The celebration in the year 200 was not a success, because it was too focused on the past. We must centre 2033 around the resurrection today. This is something that incites interest in today’s youth.

2033 is after all a symbolic date. Historically it cannot be proven without a doubt, before the council of Nicaea there were already numerous dates. What is important is to live the resurrection. The life giving presence of the risen Christ who unites us and is building his church. How do people experience the resurrection? For this we must share our life testimonies, and centre around this personal witness.

Thinking in terms of spirituality rather than an event.

According to Y. Lemopoulos, one should not simply think of Easter 2033 in terms of an event, rather we should promote spirituality and the experience of the resurrection. “What does it mean to live with the risen one? Invite existential questions and dialogue over the light of the resurrection” For Y. Lemopoulos faith is the most important. “As a missiologist, I consider that the most important thing is to share our stories with Jesus…not church politics. The message of peace and reconciliation has a top priority due to the present violence we see linked with religion”, he said.

Involve the Christian Movements

J. Keum highlights the important of involving church movements, not only institutions and church leaders. From a missiological point of view, movements are allies, especially if the assemblage of this project is missiological. They also know how to work together with the youth.

If there is a movement towards Easter 2033 amongst God’s people, they will want to celebrate together, and the leaders will follow. The institutions will get involved to the measure that the commoner will get involved. We must kindle this movement…something only the Holy Spirit is capable of doing. We must therefore call on the Holy Spirit!

What does this imply for JC2033? M. Robra responds by stating that this celebration of the 2000 years of the resurrection must be carried by all. For this, the different movements must meet with one another. A good example can be seen with Together for Europe, bringing together communities and movements. “Easter 2033 does not belong to anybody. May this project become a common ground for movements and institutions” is his wish!

The Ecumenical Dimension of JC2033

“If Christ has not risen, then our faith is in vain: faith in the resurrection unites all Christians far and above all of their divisions” says Odair Matteus, director of Faith and Constitution. He participated in the dialogue between Pentecostals and Protestants and rejoices in this project. “Its ecumenical dimension will be its strength. It will without a doubt be more attractive in South America, Asia and Africa, then in North America and Europe.” He is delighted particularly that a Pentecostal; Olivier Fleury, is seeking a communion with the historical churches.

Ani Ghazaryan Drissi, is a theologian and in charge of the program of the Commission on Faith and Constitution. He believes that JC2033 has the potential to strengthen the communion between the WCC member and non-member churches, such as the Pentecostal and Evangelic churches. She was also influential in organising our meetings with the Armenian Apostolic churches during our last visit in October 2016.

Olav Tveit considers that this project brings us back to the essential: “As Christians, disciples of the Lord and saviour, we should return to the fundamentals to work towards visible unity within the church.” He invites us also to consider why is it important that Christians celebrate Easter together? “This celebration is truly shared with all Christians. For the youth it is particularly important to understand its significance to the Christian identity.”

During a brief encounter with Douglas Chial, former WCC representative to the Pentecostal churches, I discovered that he is very excited about this project, as he imagines its potential. “It is only, when we place Christ in the centre that we can advance in unity. The future lies in such spiritual ecumenism projects.”

What spiritual basis for JC2033? According to M Robra the Christological basis is the most important. “We believe in Jesus-Christ, the resurrected Lord” The WCC and the World Christian Forum have a Trinitarian base.

JC2033 and the Middle Eastern Churches

Carla Khijoyan, in charge of the WCC relationships with Middle Easter churches welcomed JC2033 with enthusiasm during our three meetings. “This will be an opportunity to give a powerful message of the resurrected Christ. The situation for Middle East Christians is desperate. JC2033 can be a great encouragement and source of hope. Particularly for those who have lost everything.”

How do Christians see their future in light of Christ’s resurrection? What does JC2033 signify for them? C. Khijoyan was a tremendous help for organising meetings for our trip to Lebanon. We were able to validate the relevance of his questions and remarks.

His dream is that the Oriental Christians might one day be able to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for this occasion. For the time being this is impossible as they are forbidden. Lebanon, Syria and other Arab states forbid their citizens to go to Israel. We heard this desire expressed in Lebanon numerous times.

JC2033 and the Orthodox Church: The question of which date of Easter

For Loan Sauca, director of the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, the vision of JC2033 poses 2 big questions to the Orthodox Church: Common prayer and the date of Easter.

Easter is the central celebration for the Orthodox world, far more than in the traditional west. “If the year 2000 was the occasion to give the church response to the enthusiasm of the secularized world, the year 2033 is much more important for them, because Christianity begins with the resurrection of Christ. An opportunity to witness together is given to the churches.” Says the Archbishop Job Getcha, a delegate of the Patriarch of Constantinople to the WCC.

The Orthodox church celebrates Easter at a different time than the other churches. The issue of unifying the date of Easter is a very delicate subject for the Orthodox churches. An earlier ecumenical attempt regarding this was initiated by the Metropolite Damaskinos in 1970 (in Chambésy, Switzerland).

A symposium held in Aleppo, Syria, in 1997 under the auspices of the WCC and the Middle East Council of Churches to advance towards a common Easter date is a landmark in efforts to overcome obstacles. The document "Towards a common date of Easter" resulted.

But the Orthodox Churches rejected these conclusions. The Orthodox synod which met in Crete in June 2016 did not address the question of the calendar date. "Every time you touch it, there is a risk of schism. The last attempt was made in 1948 at a gathering of heads of Orthodox churches in Moscow, during which they also refused to join the WCC" said O. Mateus.

According to O Mateus, there is only one way of provoking a change: if Pope Francis would announce that he will adopt the Orthodox calendar! He would no doubt be followed by the other churches of Western tradition: "The ball is in his court. He gave positive signs. If he wants to, he has the power. This would be an ecumenical earthquake and put all the churches in a new situation! "

What implications does this current division have for JC2033? For Olav Tveit, the 2000 years of the resurrection puts back on the table the question of unifying the date of Easter. JC2033 is contributing in this direction. According to Mr. Robra, an Easter time range should be proposed rather than a single date. Analogous to the church’s process in celebrating the date of "creation". For this the Patriarch Bartholomew proposed September 1. The Catholic Church proposed October 4 (the feast of St. Francis of Assisi). Then the WCC proposed a time for creation between 1.9 and 4.10 each year. One might imagine something similar for Easter 2033. “It is not necessary to wait until then” says Mr Robra who would like to see the first symbolic step taken in Jerusalem.

Everything is the fruit or prayer

JC2033 must be supported by prayer. There should be a prayer movement around this project. "Everything is fruit of prayer," said W. Vissert'hooft, the first secretary of the WCC.

Olivier Fleury and I met Huibert Van Beek, (former secretary of the World Christian Forum), with his wife Ria at Mr Robra's “Charbonnières” farm in the Jura Vaudois. For Ria, prayer is essential: "To develop the desire to experience something together during Easter, we must invite the people of God to pray and to make visits."

Some ideas were shared during this lovely meeting: a prayer calendar for Easter, a week of prayer during this time, or, more modestly, a day of prayer (similar to the "World Day of Prayer" in March). "This prayer must have a strong missiological dimension. May it be a call to a deep change of heart! "Says H. Van Beek.

A good idea has several fathers and mothers!

How shall we move forward with this project? For Mr. Robra, the key word is "listen": "a good idea must have several fathers and mothers. The challenge is to create a creative and rewarding movement where everyone offers something of themselves. Then the Spirit moves! We must begin now, developing it together with churches and movements ".

It must be clear that everyone is needed. Here are some questions for churches and movements: what can we do together? What is your vision for 2033 and what is the best we can do together?

While it is important to gather support from the authorities of the various churches until 2020, in the form of statements, it is especially necessary to create circles of friends carrying this project in different countries similar to the World Christian Forum. To the churches and people visited, we must continuously remind them of the vision.

In addition, J. Keum believes the institutional ecumenism must be revitalized. Do not focus too much on the question "who invites"? But rather work and think in terms of networks. Young people live in networks. They must be mobilized, especially through social networks.

Conclusion

Here are some remarks heard during these meetings that sum up our time with the WCC:

2033 is not a commemoration of a past event, it is the beginning of a radical change in the lives of millions of people!

2033 is a call to change one’s personal life. It is an ecumenical pilgrimage that begins now!

It would be a scandal if we were still divided on the date of Easter for the 2000 years of the resurrection of Jesus

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Chronicles of JC2033