It has been 20 years since our first Icon Festival in November of 1995. You may remember that it all began with a small exhibit of icons in a former chapel which now houses the church elevator. It was a humble but important initiative as it allowed us to celebrate All Saints in a very tangible way and brought together members of two of the great Christian traditions: Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
Since then, the festival has broadened to include a much larger exhibit in the sanctuary; a procession with Icons; icon classes; lectures; visits to Orthodox Churches; concerts by Basilica Choirs and Orthodox Choirs; as well as prayer in both traditions. In all of this, bringing together Christians of the East and the West has been our main focus. Icons, the saints they depict and the devotion they elicit seem to be able to do just that.
For some 1000 years, Orthodox and Catholic Christians have grown apart. This has led to centuries of suspicion and distrust. Though there has been some rapprochement, the path to unity between Orthodox and Catholic Christians is neither easy not quick. And the end result is probably not going to be how we imagine it today.
As we journey toward unity, it is good to remember that the early church saw no conflict between unity and diversity, on the contrary. The early church, e.g. was rich in liturgical diversity as the language of the service, the ritual details and the texts differed from region to region. And yet, early Christians understood themselves to be united by their strong faith in Christ. A strong sense of unity and rich diversity characterized the early church.
Since then we have sadly come to equate unity with uniformity. In order to be one, we think that we have to pray in exactly the same way, using the same rituals and texts. Diversity, which was a hallmark of early Christianity is often regarded as a threat and challenge to unity, rather than an enrichment of that same unity.
If ever we hope for unity among Christians we will have to again embrace diversity as a gift, rather than as a threat. Unity will only be attained when we not only tolerate, but even embrace and welcome the divine gift of diversity.