So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. - 2 Corinthians 5:17-20
Peace and praise, reconciliation and delight: these are the purposes of God.- Archbishop Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust
One of the great gifts of my time in Burgundy has been the opportunity to worship with a contemporary icon of peace and praise: The Taizé Community. The Taizé Community is perhaps best known today for its composition of beautiful chants based on simple scripture sentences (praise). What is less well known, but perhaps more important, is its ministry as a pilgrimage site drawing young adults from all over Europe and the world (peace).
The Taizé Community is an ecumenical brotherhood consisting of about 100 Protestant, Anglican, and Roman Catholic men who live together under a rule of life shaped by the traditional monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The brotherhood was founded in the wake of the trauma of World War II by Brother Roger Louis Schutz-Marsauche. Brother Roger envisioned a Christian community that transcended the church’s divisions and made God’s mission of reconciliation through Jesus Christ the center of its common life.
|pilgrims at Taizé|
It is a remarkable vision. What is even more remarkable is that since the 1950s hundreds of thousands of young people, from all over Europe and the world, have come as pilgrims to Taizé to spend a week working, praying, and studying scripture with the brothers. During the summer months, as many as 6,000 pilgrims come to Taizé each week!
What brings them to this place: a tiny, ordinary village in the French countryside?
I think it has to do with the authenticity of the brothers’ Christian practice. Brother Roger’s choice to settle in Taizé is instructive in itself. He chose to found a religious community there, precisely because it was a poor and humble place, in need of a witness to God’s love. Brother Roger and the first brothers were intentional about living in solidarity with the poor, and committed to do so in perpetuity.
Interestingly, Brother Roger’s mother had family roots in the Burgundy region, so the choice of Taizé was also a kind of homecoming for him. What is important to note is that, from the beginning, the community’s witness to prayer and praise was in the context of stability (commitment to remain in a particular place) and the practice of sacrificial love.
Initially, this self-giving took the form of aiding Jews and French resistance forces seeking to escape German occupied France, and proving food and shelter for victims of the war. Later, it included establishing homes for war orphans and aiding German POW’s in nearby camps. The brothers were willing to take risks for the sake of love: love of the poor, of refugees, and even of enemies.
The brothers support themselves through farming and pottery making, gathering together three times daily for prayer. They did not set out to be a major pilgrimage destination for young adults. Their simplicity, humility, commitment to the poor, and ecumenical spirit simply drew people to them. The brothers embraced God’s mission of reconciliation and people responded. Young people can sniff out inauthenticity a mile way. At Taizé, they sense an authentic commitment to following the way of Jesus.
What has most moved me about the Taizé brothers is their continual willingness to give themselves away for the sake of God’s mission. The stability of their common life has provided a rich soil for growth that has extended the reach of their ministry all over the world. Their phenomenal hospitality to strangers bears witness to their sacrificial love.
At first, the brothers worshiped in the abandoned Romanesque church in Taizé. This ancient, venerable, and beautiful space was soon too small to hold the many pilgrims joining them for prayer. So, in 1962, the brothers dedicated a new, larger building: the Church of Reconciliation. They recognized that the church is not a building, but rather the people of God, and that buildings mean little if they fail to serve God’s mission.
|The Church of Reconciliation, Taizé|
By 1971, the new church building was no longer able to contain the number of pilgrims either. So, the brothers took sledgehammers in hand and knocked down the entire west wall, even though it contained a beautiful stained glass window, and erected an old red and white circus tent to expand the space!
When the Iron Curtain was lifted in 1989, a flood of Eastern Europeans made their way to Taizé, further expanding the number of pilgrims. The brothers made permanent additions to the church building, with movable walls to accommodate larger or smaller groups, and added onion-shaped domes to the roof to make pilgrims from Eastern Orthodox traditions feel more at home.
In less than thirty years, the brothers radically transformed their worship space three times for the sake of God’s mission. At Taizé, Christianity is about transforming lives, not preserving buildings. The brothers make sacrifices to witness to God’s peace through shared praise of God. They understand the difference between stability and rigidity. They let nothing get in the way of sharing God’s love.
Many congregations have been in place much longer than the Taizé Community, but stability is not enough. It is the combination of stability and sacrificial love, the willingness to give one’s self away in love for neighbor and stranger, that makes for vital Christian witness. It is this self-giving that makes reconciliation possible and the praise of God credible. It is what makes for authentic ambassadors of the purposes of God.