Under Her Wings
Theology of Reconciliation
and Implications for Liturgy
Those of us privileged to attend the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation (IALC) in August 2015 in Montreal were immersed in a rich encounter with the power of corporate reconciliation. Primate of Canada, Fred Hiltz, and Canadian Anglican Indigenous Bishop Mark Macdonald presented powerful testimonies on their experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada as well as their ongoing work in the reconciliation of First Nations peoples and “empire.” Fr Michael Lapsley OSM shared his experience as a freedom fighter against the apartheid regime in South Africa now turned healer after losing both his arms and vision from a letter bomb. His work with the ‘healing of memory’ was extraordinary.
The community also celebrated the Eucharist on the Feast of the Transfiguration with a commemoration of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. The liturgy was designed and led by the IALC representatives from the Asian provinces, with beautiful music by Saya Ojiri and a moving homily by The Rev. Shintaro Ichihara, both of Japan.
As part of our work, we began discussion on the theology of reconciliation and baptismal identity. Here are a few initial reflections I took away:
1. Baptismal Identity
Baptism is the locus of Christian Identity. Human beings participate in the Trinitarian life as “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) by consenting to the free gift of a restored human nature in communion with God through the Paschal Mystery. Baptism is the unifying grace and deifying action of the Holy Spirit through which the people of God live into throughout their entire lives and marks the beginning of our free participation in the saving acts of Jesus Christ. Baptism ultimately returns human life from the unnatural state of death, to the natural state of life, intended by God, found in communion.
Acts of reconciliation, both personal and corporate are always a realization of our baptismal identity, a passing over from death to life, from separation to communion with God and the human family. Liturgies of reconciliation may offer ways to reflect this foundational principle directly through the use of water, specific reference and baptismal narrative or indirectly through reference to passing over from death to life, and the recognition of the one human family.
2. Restoration of Personhood
The life of the Trinity is a life of kenotic relationship in which the natural state of human nature is to be in communion with, as the first human beings shared before the Fall, and restored in Jesus Christ. Personhood is a particular hypostatic reality shared by the Holy Trinity and made available to human beings as the image of God and realized through the ontological reality of communion, sometimes called theosis. Our true personhood is claimed at the font and sustained and revealed through the Eucharist and in acts of repentance and reconciliation.
The work of reconciliation is primarily the work of restoring human dignity and personhood both individually and within the community. Personhood is the true ontological status of human being that becomes impaired and broken through our separation with God and our fellow human beings. In corporate liturgical rites, the implications of a restored personal dignity, individually and communally, is both a psychological and theological understanding that corresponds both to restorative justice and to the salvific understanding of a restored humanity in relationship with God.
3. Freely Chosen
All Christian Theology preserves the ultimate freedom of God who created ex nihilo. The capacity of freewill is the defining character of the ‘image of God’, human beings. For love to be true, it must be unconditionally free. God has endowed human nature with free will, therefore, the capacity to love as well as to choose life over death. Freedom is enshrined in the dramatic events of the salvific narrative in both Mary’s free consent to the divine invitation of the incarnation (Luke 1:38) as well as Christ’s yielding to receive the cup at Gethsemene (Matthew: 26: 36-46), even against the natural inclination to preserve his own life. Christ’s human nature in freely transcending itself in obedience to the divine will marks the restoration of all human nature to its natural state: oriented to communion with God.
Reconciliation is a freely chosen act of the will, an invitation to transcend the inclination to defensiveness, righteousness and the vulnerability inherent in confession and forgiveness. Any act of reconciliation that is forced, mandated, or rewarded loses its true character. Thus from a corporate perspective, language which infers a moralistic or judgmental tone may need to incorporate a confessional dimension which is authentic to a variety of positions which seek to be reconciled.
Repentance is the freely turning back towards relationship with God, from separation to communion, from death to life. It is firstly an act of the will to return to right relationship. Repentance includes the unconditional confession of perpetrators, as well as victims, of human violence, humiliation and all actions which lead us from our divine inheritance as children of God. Acknowledging how communion has been broken is a ‘lamentation’ that must be given the space to be properly mourned. The tears offered become the waters of our return to the font – through which we pass over again in return to our restored human dignity claimed at Baptism.
The work of reconciliation requires a clear opportunity for victims to share their experience, and name their wounds and humiliation which has led them to an impaired relationship with God and others. Perpetrators are also invited to unconditionally confess to their actions and to offer their expressions of regret and contrition. These acts of the will, again, are movements that require great vulnerability and require great trust, transcending our inclination for self-preservation and defense. In corporate acts of repentance, the space for narrative, for mourning and lamentation are not to be avoided.
Christian perfection, according to Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394), is an eternal progress.[i] The act of returning to the font, metanoia, is the supreme activity of human freedom, as the saving work of restoration is completed by God, freely offered, to be received through human consent. The consummation of all life is a realized, yet future reality that human beings must continually yield towards as we yearn for its fulfillment. Acts in the past which led to separation, which we feel may now be reconciled, may be repeated again, or be continuing in ways that are hidden to us.
Acts of reconciliation are ultimately never complete, as we forever open new horizons where healing is needed, opportunities for human beings to make reparation for the fruits of our misdirected freedom. Christian life is a journey of yielding into the fullness of communion with God, a lifetime of metanoia. Rites of reconciliation should reflect some open-endedness, a commitment to the ongoing work of reconciliation and the journey towards unity of all people.
It would seem to me, on the path of reconciliation, the font is where we find a starting place and a place to return, again. This is the “way of tears,”[ii] that St Symeon (d. 1022) speaks of: the road to a reconciled human family with the Creator, who yearns “to gather her brood under her wings” (Luke 13:34, Matthew 23:27).
Gregor Sneddon is a presbyter serving St Luke’s Church in the Diocese of Ottawa. He completed his graduate work at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies. A member of the Council of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, Gregor is also a member of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, and founding Coordinator for Contemplative Outreach Eastern Ontario. When not with his family, he likes to be cooking, in the woods, or swinging the Blues.
The Holy Trinity, by Valerie Anne Kelly
The Annunciation, by Phaedra Taylor
[i] Herbert Musurillo, From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings (reprint ed., Crestwood, M.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979). Pgs 16, 21, 43, 46, 50, 51, 53, 75, 155.
[ii] Symeon, The Discourses, trans. C. J. deCatanzaro (New York: Paulist, 1980). Pg 160.