On the sixth day of the week, when a darkness had covered the face of the earth, the new Adam lay upon the cross overcome by the sin of the world. The Roman guards served as scalpel and hand to open the side of the new Adam, and from this incision flowed the water and the blood—the birth pangs of the church. 

Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought; it has yet another hidden meaning, which I will explain to you. I said that water and blood symbolized baptism and the holy eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born: from baptism, the cleansing of water, that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit, and from the holy eucharist. Since the symbols of baptism and the eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam.1

Here the golden-tongued preacher, Saint John Chrysostom, describes the birth of the church as flowing from the physical opening of the new Adam and falling upon the soil, which groans for the children of God to be revealed (see Rom. 8:19). This blood provides not only the needed nourishment for the growth of the church, as Tertullian rightly proclaims regarding the church’s many martyrs, but also the very seeds of new creation.2

Then, on the eighth day, we find a woman searching in a garden. She searches to be with God, not to be like God, and in her searching, this early member of the church is bereaved, as she cannot find her Lord. The new Adam interrupts the woman as she grieves, and in her despair, she mistakes him for a gardener and asks where she might find her Lord. The new Adam calls her by name, Mary. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux describes this encounter between Mary and Jesus, the bridegroom and the bride, Christ and the church as intimate, noting that the lover responds to the woman by saying, “Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”3

The newly born bride is enraptured by the lover in the love that binds, and her restless heart finds its rest as she leans against the bosom of the new Adam. This rest is cut short by the mission to proclaim not an idea but an encounter, an encounter that includes the promise of future encounters with the bridegroom’s transcendent love (see John 16:17). The woman runs to proclaim the resurrection to the believers and the bewildered of the church. As the people of the church, with doors locked, ponder these things within their hearts, the Word of God, the new Adam, meets them and proclaims peace and breathes on them, filling the lungs of the church with his Spirit (see John 20:22).

Easter and Locked Doors

The similarities between the first Eastertide, with the disciples locked behind closed doors, fearing death and wondering where Jesus is, and our recent or ongoing experiences with the pandemic are obvious. We’ve found ourselves sharing reports of Jesus, usually over a digital medium, and once in a while someone enters into our locked rooms and says they have experienced Jesus and they are now changed. We go back to our screens, with doors locked, and try to make sense of things. 

To continue our practices of worship many of the faithful, young and old alike, have fumbled through new digital platforms hastily created by pastors who spent their seminary education learning how to proclaim the word of God without exposure to classes on videography, Facebook Live, or audio production. Theologians have begun the task of trying to make sense of whether or not the sacramental bread and wine are valid when taken in the home without anyone else around or whether the epiclesis can travel through a world completely created by humans. Then someone raises the question of whether the Eucharist still counts when the prayer of institution was prerecorded, and we’re back to square one. 

As ministers, we know that we are trying our best to give theological answers to a worst-case scenario. As parishioners, we find that our membership in a local community is realized within a digital space, and we find that YouTube’s algorithms are beginning to feed us new religious options because they see that we’re into that kind of thing. We long for Christ, but we weep at his apparent absence within a cacophony of options. And yet our weeping does not stymie our search. 

One friend of mine, who hadn’t physically attended church with his Christian community during much of the pandemic, shared that after many months of deep YouTube dives and reading excursions he recognized he was “somewhere between Greek Orthodox and Confessional Lutheranism.” As I considered this admission, I began to wonder about the lasting effects of these pandemic-triggered spiritual quests. What will an endless supply of religious options do to the work of ecumenism? What does it mean that the ecclesiological understanding of the seeker seems to have expanded to include millions of digital options? For better or worse, how will the placement of these options upon individuals lead to new interpretations and new personal and linguistic expressions that shape how they seek to live out their churchly identity?4

I recently attended a Barna presentation on their research as part of their State of the Church series, and there I learned that many practicing Christians, especially younger Christians, now expect a hybrid of in-person and online worship to continue once the pandemic is over.5 Such a pluriform denominational landscape may, if religious experience is more and more found in a digital sphere, encourage a greater excarnational understanding of reality and a desacramentalized worldview of our experience, thus proliferating what Charles Taylor calls the “immanent frame.”6 This point of caution aside, I believe we need an ecumenist’s perspective regarding how the faithful may navigate the various religious options at their disposal and seek to receive them, as Mary did in the garden. That is, how might we hear the words of the angels and recognize the questioning Christ? How might we recognize the current state we are in and offer a way forward that encourages conversion and not consumption, reception and not appropriation, unity and not division? 

To do this, we must first recognize that our engagement with the religious world within a digital space is very much a practice in ecumenism, especially if we have any concern at all for Christ’s desire that his church be one (see John 17:20). Such an ecumenical endeavor may be bolstered by the Second Vatican Council’s note that “there can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart.”7 But how do we go about this change of heart? How do we take on the practice of conversion rather than consumption? 

The Posture and Opportunity of Reception

Developed by the British Catholic theologian Paul Murray, receptive ecumenism, when employed in ecumenical dialogue between Christian traditions, seeks to ask the self-critical question, “What, in any given situation, can one’s own tradition appropriately learn with integrity from other traditions?”8 Murray is speaking specifically of traditions learning from one another in order to move toward full structural unity, but I want to focus on the disposition required of us as individuals if we are to even begin to ask this kind of question. To do this, it is helpful to recognize the theological and epistemological underpinnings of receptive ecumenism. 

First, speaking from a Catholic perspective, Murray leans upon the Second Vatican Council’s description of the church of Christ as subsisting in the Catholic Church and the opportunity for learning that comes from this self-understanding:

Within modern . . . Catholicism, the key relevant developments took place at the Second Vatican Council with the move beyond a straightforward identification, without remainder, of the church of Christ with the Catholic Church to speaking of the former as subsisting in the latter and, with this, maintaining that whilst the Catholic Church lacks none of the essential marks of the church of Christ, these marks cannot, therefore, be regarded as being present exclusively . . . or perfectly with Roman Catholicism.9

In short, Vatican II sets the criteria for Catholic learning from other Christian traditions by recognizing this as an encounter with the church of Christ, not simply an exchange of ideas. This means that as a hybrid church mentality begins to proliferate, as individuals become digital members of one church community and physical members of another, and as we encounter more and more religious options in the digital space, we must have an awareness, like Mary Magdalene, that we are seeking to encounter Christ, not to consume a brand that is comfortable for us at the time. This kind of perspective also assumes, again like Mary, a posture of woundedness, of need and humility. 

It may seem obvious that if we are researching the plethora of religious options available online, we are indeed lacking something. But all too often, we imagine our goal as facilitating the development of a personal religious identity, pulling a little from Ignatian spirituality here, a bit from Orthodox liturgy there, a dollop of liberal Protestantism. Or sometimes we claim an existing brand for ourselves in which we believe truth resides, and we position ourselves and that brand against all others. This is not ecumenism; this is consumption. 

“Receptive Ecumenism draws us into a new disposition, a new way of speaking and relating with one another” write Vicky Balabanski and Geraldine Hawkes.10 This new disposition assumes that what is encountered within an ecumenical exchange is an expression of the church of Christ and that this experience demands a conversion. This conversion through the reception of gifts from the ecumenical other is not simply a Life and Work Movement ecumenism, which suggests that two groups can partner together because they have appropriated something from one another’s tradition. Instead, such a conversion assumes a change, or more rightly, development, in the receiver. 

In Mary’s encounter in the garden, we see that she turns to Jesus not once but twice as she fails to recognize him. Yet Jesus speaks to her, and she finds herself grasped by the words of the lover. This is reminiscent of Karl Barth’s emphasis on the word of God grasping humankind. Or put into an explicitly Trinitarian key, Murray points to the Spirit being a “generative, transforming power.”11 Thus, we may find ourselves like Mary, searching for Christ only to be found by him, and in this experience, our hearts are converted, transformed. 

Secondly, receptive ecumenism assumes a process of real assent, to use Saint John Henry Newman’s phrase. At times both ecumenical dialogue and the spiritual quest for truth within the digital marketplace of ideas become notional or cognitive experiences rather than actions to which we fully commit or believe. In describing some models of ecumenical dialogue, Murray writes the following:

For all it [ecumenical dialogue] has to offer, the problem-driven strategy of conceptual and grammatical clarification is, in itself, more a strategy of translation and interpretation than of actual conversion and real receptive learning.” Instead, receptive ecumenical conversion requires real assent in which we hold to a truth with such a conviction that we come to discover it is in fact the truth that is holding us. Newman illustrates this contrast when he says that “many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.12 

To return to our example of the spiritual searchers, we might say that the propositions or conclusions collected from the various sources they choose to draw from make up “the furniture of the mind.” These thoughts may be easily moved in and out of their understanding, and like moveable furniture, they do not hold singularly within themselves the capacity for conversion. In fact, in many ways, for Newman, these propositions which make up the furniture can be seen simply as individual points of dogma to the religion of the contemporary person. In contrast, real assent is the speaking of the religious person out of a place of conviction, or belief, which is shaped and influenced by the web of various dogmas, narratives, and assorted furniture that makes up their understanding of God’s relation to the world around them. Real assent occurs when we imbue that furniture with meaning and emotion, when we begin to have real conviction behind our thoughts. As Newman says, “After all, man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal.”13 Real assentis a conviction that is spoken by a changed person and that is modeled in the response of Mary to Jesus’s call. 

Of course, this real assent may manifest itself in many forms and may very well create further division, as is seen all too often within the digital sphere. Indeed, I am not proposing that we simply make a real assent without cognitive or notional assent. This is impossible. Newman is not saying how to do epistemology but simply stating what is happening in the thinking, feeling human. But if founded upon the dispositional assumptions implied within receptive ecumenism, that is the learning from the experience of Christ within the ecumenical other, this encounter can manifest into a real assent that leaves us changed, converted, and more like the person of Christ. As these assumptions are employed, that is the assumption—that the spirit of God is continually at work within our ecumenical partners, and that it will become apparent to us that the spiritual search within this new landscape is in fact a pneumatological and not simply a cognitive exploration. It is here that we will find we are not alone in the garden but that Christ is present.

Mary’s Example

Mary’s proclamation of her encounter with Christ soon becomes a collective experience, as Jesus enters the locked room and breathes life into the church. He commissions the disciples. He gives them a mission and the tools necessary for new creation, and we can see the church through this encounter, this assent, as the men and women in that locked room begin the work that their ecclesial identity demands. We see that they have been converted, that their hearts have been changed. They don’t simply speak ideas about Jesus; they proclaim this encounter with the risen Lord. 

In an age of hybrid churches with an endless supply of religious options, we too may find ourselves in the garden with Jesus asking us, as he did Mary, “Whom are you looking for?” (John 20:15 NRSV). Will we open ourselves to answering this question by recognizing Christ present with us in this search and in our need? The weeping Mary made manifest her need, and in her vulnerability, she experienced the risen Christ. In an age with a proclivity for locking doors let us model her example.

  1. Chrysostom, “Catecheses,” in Liturgy of the Hours, vol. 2 (New York City, NY: Catholic Book, 1976), 474–75.
  2. Tertullian, Apol. 50, 13.
  3. Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs (Collegeville, MN: Cistercians, 2008), 12.
  4. This personal/linguistic rhetoric is a nod to the Lindbeckian cultural/linguistic postliberal understanding of religious experience and expression (see George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1984]) but caved into a personalist magisterium.
  5. Six Questions about the Future of the Hybrid Church Experience (Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2020)
  6. Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007) 539.
  7. Second Vatican Council, Unitatis Redintegratio, 2.7, https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19641121_unitatis-redintegratio_en.html.
  8. Murray, “Receptive Ecumenism and Catholic Learning—Establishing the Agenda,” in Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning, ed. Paul Murray (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008), 12.
  9. Murray, “Receptive Ecumenism,” 13.
  10. Balabanski and Hawkes, Receptive Ecumenism: Listening, Learning and Loving in the Way of Christ (Hindmarsh, Australia: ATF, 2018), ix.
  11. See Barth, The Doctrine of the Word of God, vol. 1.1, Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Peabody: Hendrixson Publishers, 2010)110; and Murray, Reason, Truth and Theology in Pragmatist Perspective (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2004), 135.
  12. Murray, “Receptive Ecumenism,” 14; Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), 89.
  13. Newman, An Essay, 61 and 90.