Discipleship and Ministry of Jean Vanier

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This morning I watched online as hundreds gathered in a church in Trosley-Breuil to celebrate the life and ministry of Jean Vanier, and to commit his spirit to God and his body to the ground. The service was a beautiful gathering of L’Arche friends from around the world, Catholic leaders, brothers from Taize, and members of the local L’Arche community.  It was a beautiful time to pray, sing, listen to the Word of God that Jean Vanier loved and lived, and be fed together at the table of Jesus Christ. 

I cannot name the moment when I first encountered Jean Vanier, but throughout my Master’s of Divinity and my Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry, Jean was a touchstone for my work. I would wonder “What does Jean say about this experience?” or “How would Jean talk about scripture in this theme?” and sure enough, the words I found spoke to me and reminded me of God’s presence, love, and joy in the beautiful messiness of life. And so, when I came into the office this morning and turned to watch his funeral, Jean Vanier, once again reminded me of that – showing God’s presence, love, and joy in the beautiful messiness of life all over the world. I am grateful for the witness of Jean to the love of Jesus Christ for all but especially for people with intellectual and physical disabilities, people who society deems to be the last and least.

Scripture was read from the prophet Isaiah (58:6-14) calling God’s people to break the chains of injustice and from the last night of Jesus’ life (John 13:1-17) when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and called us to do the same. For me, these rich scriptures call us to live in God’s kingdom where the first are the last and the last are the first, where barriers between people fall down, and where vulnerability, humility, service, and love are the daily practices of disciples. Jean sought to live this way, and he did so always in community.

As the community prepared to gather around Jesus’ table again, as they so often did with Jean, they brought forward symbols he shared with them:

  • An ark (symbolizing life)
  • A mosaic (symbolizing peacemakers)
  • An icon (symbolizing friendship of Christ)
  • A bowl of oranges (symbolizing celebration and fun)
  • A broken pot with light streaming out (symbolizing brokenness and beauty)
  • A loaf of bread and grapes (symbolizing table fellowship)
  • A bowl and a pitcher of water (symbolizing service of one another)
  • Bread and wine to celebrate the Eucharist

Though I was not physically present at the table, I felt Christ’s invitation to join in that celebration which was so important in Jean’s ministry and witness.  People exchanged signs of peace with the Asian teaching of “Namaste”, saying to each other, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.” Jean practiced bowing to the divine in each person he encountered. It was beautiful to watch with people of all disabilities and abilities being nourished, sounds of joy and sorrow coming from the community, and songs of praise for God’s love in our world.  In the last weeks of his life, Jean sang “Jesus We Adore You” and so the community joined in song:

Father, we adore You
Lay our lives before You
How we love You

Jesus, we adore You
Lay our lives before You
How we love You

Spirit, we adore You
Lay our lives before You
How we love You

Gathering, hearing God’s word, being fed at Jesus’ table, the community was now ready to share stories and speak words of gratitude and love to and for Jean. His niece shared, “I heard you say, ‘How are you?’ and you would listen with love.” Community members who shared life with Jean for over 50 years, remember walking with Jean in the park and eating with him at home and at restaurants. They knew him to be a courageous man full of tenderness and gentleness who loved life, great and small. They shared, “Now he’s with Jesus. We miss you a lot Jean.” The community leader of L’Arche Trosley-Breuil, shared these words of gratitude: “Thank you Jean – you gave us your love. We loved when you laughed at our jokes and made them as well.  We loved that you loved birds – teaching us to grow in our own beauty and freedom. Thank you for washing our feet and for allowing us to wash your feet.  Thank you for blessing us and we blessed you in kind. May you rest in peace with Jesus who loves you.”

The final speaker remembered the words of Jean when people credited him with the ministry of L’Arche: “People say that I was the founder, but I say that I was the first to arrive.” He said to the congregation, “Jean was the first, and we are the latest to arrive. This is a responsibility and a privilege. Thank you, Jean.”

A priest incensed Jean’s casket, praying that he would rise again with Jesus Christ. Just as people were invited forward to participate in the Eucharist, they were invited to come forward to sprinkle Jean’s casket with holy water, recalling that he is a beloved baptized child of God. It was beautiful to watch these gentle, holy moments where each came to say goodbye to Jean and prepare his body for burial. 

The congregation was blessed to go in the world, faithful to Jesus’ revolution where the last will be first in God’s kingdom – the way Jean sought to live his life in community. As Jean requested, an intimate burial with his biological family and his family in local L’Arche communities followed.

Holy moments to witness, reminding me of the holy way he served, the holy words he spoke and wrote, and the wholly beloved people he was in relationship with. I am so thankful for the discipleship of Jean Vanier, and I remain thankful for the people carrying on his ministry, those who are simply the latest to arrive.

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