International Highlight 2003: “Human Dignity and Christian Unity”
by the Rev. Dr. Kevin McMorrow, SA, Associate Director,
Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute;
Editor, Ecumenical Trends

           The Argentinean group who chose this theme from the Second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians (4:5-18) wished to remind their christian sisters and brothers, so many of whom are immigrants, that they have been gifted with the risen life of Christ. Too many immigrants in too many countries have felt unwelcome, lonely, and marginalized as they struggled to adapt to their new surroundings. In Argentina the ecumenical group chose the Week of Prayer for Christian unity to remind them of their fundamental dignity as human beings and their further gift of sharing, by way of baptism, in the risen life of Christ Jesus. The dignity of the human person, immigrant or not, is a theme that needs to be shouted from the rooftops at this time in our history when so much violence and killing is aimed at people of every race, color, tribe and nation. The human person, human life in and of itself, is sacred, is Godí property. And this truth, spoken by God’s into history with the creation of our first parents, needs constant repetition in the face of so many forces– economic, political, and racial– that aim to cheapen, degrade, and enslave human beings.

            The theme chosen for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity definitely runs counter to every attempt to belittle, violate and exploit that which is sacred, human beings created in God’s image and likeness. When Paul speaks of the risen life of Christ residing in earthen vessels, he is doing much more than calling attention to the gift that is human dignity. He is stressing the very sublime vocation to which all human beings are called. And Paul further says that earthen vessels are chosen to carry the gift of Christ’s risen life, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” (2 Cor.4:7).  Human beings, these earthen vessels so chosen, can only render thanks that God has looked upon their lowliness and blessed them with a gift that far surpasses all human understanding.

            Godís predilection for the earthly (and therefore for the human) as the way of containing and expressing his manifold treasures reaches way back to the beginnings of human history. The first of these treasures, the gift of human life, is described in Genesis in various ways, one of which has to do with something very earthly, namely dust, which the Creator uses to form a human being. And this human person, a real vessel of clay, is further described as bearing the image and likeness of God. The first source of human dignity and sacredness lies here, where in the Creator’s plan, the earthen vessels that are man/woman are able to reflect something of the divine. Created in God’s image and likeness, our first parents speak to God because he first speaks to them; God walks with them and they with God. This relationship with God Creator is so indelibly engraved in the human that not even sin can totally erase or annihilate the restless craving for God’s presence that results from being made in his image and likeness.

            Yet sin does have a devastating effect on these earthen vessels, especially in wounding and darkening their free will so that all too easily they can and do say ‘no’ to God and ‘no’ to the vocation of living in peace and love with their fellow human beings. Because of sin the members of the human family lose sight of the oneness of their origin and the oneness of their final destiny. Unity with God, unity with the whole of creation, especially with fellow humans, gives way to separation both from God and from the goodness of his creation. The holy, the sacred, imbedded by the Creator in woman/man, is now, due to sin, almost totally obscured. Being now cut off from intimacy with the things of God, these exiles walk through the corridors of history often asking and musing about the meaning of life and death and wondering, what is the divine, what is the Transcendent all about? Will the Creator in whose image and likeness they have been made ever speak to them again?

            In various ways God answered these questions, especially in and through the history of his chosen people. The sacred, always present in the human, but hardly recognizable, gradually resurfaces by way of patriarch/matriarch vessels, through the words of inspired prophets and by means of the countless earthen vessels that plead, long for, and pray for the coming of a Redeemer. Little by little but only dimly comes the understanding that the human, human history, human beings are vessels of special dignity because they have been chosen by God to communicate the riches of his saving will. But more light, greater clarity would have to be shed on the human if its true dignity was to be truly seen, if it was to be seen as possessing an openness to the divine. This light God bestowed in the fullness of time when he spoke his final and definitive Word: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” (Jn. 1: 14). No longer could there be any doubt as to where the sacred is located. No longer is the human only dimly seen as the mediator of the divine. The source of all sacredness, the divine, becomes visible in the flesh, in the total humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. By taking to himself our human nature in its totality, sin alone excepted, God clearly and definitively proclaims that this earthen vessel that is human nature is most precious in his sight and a most sacred vehicle for communicating the mystery of his love.

            With the Word of God made flesh, God enters into human history in a new way, the way of incarnation. Now both Jew and Gentile, that is, all members of the human family, are invited to become Godís family, members of his Son’s Body, through the sacrament of baptism. “But when the fulness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Gal 4:4,5). The riches found in the created order, earthly treasures grasped by the human senses, such as water, bread and wine, oil, become Spirit driven vehicles for transforming, re-creating, and sanctifying earthen vessels throughout their terrestrial pilgrimage. The gift of human life created in the image and likeness of God is now crowned with the gift of divine adoption, the gift of being daughters/sons in the Son. Created in God’s image, recreated in the image of the Son– surely there can be no greater witness to the dignity of the human person and her/his vocation.

            More than that, it is not simply individual earthen vessels, in isolation from each other, who are called to friendship with God but individuals gathered together into the body of Christ Jesus, a faith filled and faith guided community through whom Godís word and deeds reach into human history. Yes, these followers of Christ, linked together through the bond of baptismal birth, often persecuted but not crushed, often perplexed but not despairing, are the vessels adorned with treasures, not made by human hands, but rather treasures flowing from God’s infinite goodness. Among these gifts descending from above, shaping and forming communion between Christ’s disciples, are the risen life of Christ, his Holy Spirit, Sacred Scripture, sacraments, faith, hope, love and an array of diverse charismatic gifts.

            It is due to the ecumenical movement that Christian communities have come to recognize and proclaim that these gifts constitute a bond of unity among all the baptized. But the same ecumenical movement has also moved these same Christians to confess that there is still too much division, too much disunity existing between the churches, the christian bodies that lay claim to being in Christ. Is Christ divided? The response of all ecumenically-minded people is an absolute ‘No’ and prayer for Christian unity together with the theological sharing involved in dialogue as well as the faith witness to the reconciling power of Christís presence are helping the members of his Body to come ever closer together in faith, worship, and service on behalf of the human family.

            The quest for church unity is indeed pursued by these earthen vessels under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And what needs to be highlighted more and more in this prayerful search for unity is the one-ness, the unity that binds together all human beings. Church unity is not an end in itself but is always in relation to or ordered to the unity of mankind. Not only the portion of christian believers but all human beings have been invested with a dignity that flows from God’s creative hand. Being made in his image and likeness is the source of this dignity and wherever Christ Jesus is proclaimed there too is exalted woman/women/man/men because the humanness of the latter is the swaddling clothes that God chose as his raiment when he entered into our human history. Indeed Incarnation spills over to seeing God and honoring God and serving him, not only in our christian sisters and brothers, but in all people who say ‘Yes’ to their God-given humanity. May our prayer for christian unity and all of our prayers that ask for love instead of hatred, for preservation of human life instead of its destruction, for peace instead of war be founded upon the dignity of the human, the sacredness of the human person, a gift that a Psalmist centuries ago described in these words addressed to God the Creator:

What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than angels,
and crowned them with glory and honor. (Ps. 8:4,5)

Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute
PO Box 300, Garrison, New York 10524-0300