Written by Fr Elio Capra
Warning: this article could change the way you understand and live the period of Lent!
I need to issue this warning because that is what happened to me many years ago when I was studying the long journey of the catechumens towards the celebration of the sacraments of Christian initiation.
The journey included a long period of catechesis (the catechumenate), concluding with the Rite of Election, when the catechumens gathered around their bishop and handed in their names to be written in the Book of the Elect. At the end of the ceremony, the bishop would declare the newly elect ready to begin a period of intense preparation before celebrating the sacraments of Christian initiation at the Easter Vigil.
This intense period of preparation is the origin of Lent. It had a twofold purpose: purification and enlightenment. This twofold purpose is clearly described in Hosea 2:14–15. The Lord notices that Israel, his bride, has grown lukewarm, and so the Lord takes the initiative to rekindle the love:
‘Therefore, I will now allure her and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her … there she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.’
This is the original meaning of Lent: a time when God calls us into the desert so that through a process of purification and enlightenment, we will once again fall in love with Christ and make him the centre of our lives. Lent is about falling in love again with Jesus Christ. It is a time to fall in love again with the One who loves and longs for our love. It is the experience of God’s love that will give us the strength and courage to rid ourselves of any obstacles in the way of our relationship with Jesus Christ.
The process of purification and enlightenement becomes evident and alive through the celebration of the scrutinies. They are rituals celebrated during the third, fourth and fifth weeks of Lent to prepare those who are to be initiated (the elect) during the Easter Vigil (RCIA, §133). What is the purpose of the scrutinies? According to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults:
They are meant to uncover, then heal all that is weak, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong and good. For the scrutinies are celebrated in order to deliver the elect from the power of sin and Satan, to protect them against temptation, and so to give them strength in Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life.
This passage clearly states that in order to become followers of Christ, the elect will have to undergo a challenging and demanding process of purification. As such, the scrutinies need to be celebrated properly and correctly.
Because the correct and proper method of purification and enlightenment is so essential, the Church does not want this to be the work of an individual or individuals who arbitrarily judge whether the elect are ready for initiation. Spiritual purification and enlightenment can only be done after consulting the guidelines and criteria given to the Church by Jesus, the Word of God, who came to call and to heal sinners. This is why the scrutinies are always celebrated after the Liturgy of the Word of God. The three gospels of the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent in Year A become the criteria for the scrutinies. Jesus is proclaimed, is present and is encountered as the living water (the story of the woman at the well in John 4:5–42), as the light (the story of the man born blind in John 9:1–41) and as new life (the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11:1–45).
Through these three gospels, the church is asking the elect: If you want to become a follower of Christ, does your heart really seek Christ
- as the only one who can quench your deepest thirst?
- as the only one who can open your eyes to see God’s presence around you and within you?
- as the only one who can bring new meaning, new purpose and a completely new direction to your life?
The world asks the question: ‘What can I get out of life?’ The Gospel’s question is far more challenging and demanding: ‘What does God want me to do with my life so that I may love God with all my heart and my neighbour as myself?’
These three gospels will inspire the elect to be united with Christ, but at the same time, they will uncover the weaknesses in their hearts. In order to be able to accept Christ as the living water, the light and the new life, the heart must be scrutinised and purified. The Word of God therefore will uncover:
- the poisonous and stagnant water lying in their hearts
- the blindness of their anger, jealousy and hard-heartedness
- the narrowness of their selfishness, apathy and self-interest.
Jesus, the living Word of God, does not uncover to condemn or to judge, but in order to heal and forgive. The exorcism celebrated during the scrutinies is a proclamation of the fact that God’s love for the elect is stronger and more powerful than their own sins and weaknesses: ‘In the rite of exorcism … the elect are freed from the effects of sin and from the influence of the devil. They receive new strength in the midst of their spiritual journey and they open their hearts to receive the gifts of the Saviour’ (RCIA, §131).
The Liturgy of the Word is then followed by the actual scrutiny. Scrutinising one’s heart is very challenging, demanding and often painful. The elect are not left to carry this out alone and isolated. They are gathered in the presence of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (the trinitarian circle of love), of the angels and of all the saints. The whole parish community surrounds them and embraces them with their prayers and support. In this company, and only in this company, does the Church invite the elect to face sin and Satan and to uncover what is weak, defective and sinful in them in order to be transformed and to turn to Christ as their living water, their new light and their new life.
During the scrutinies, the elect are the primary, but not the exclusive, beneficiaries of God’s healing and transforming love. The whole community is invited to enter into the process of purification and enlightenment in two ways.
First, the presence of the elect reminds the whole Christian community that God is scrutinising not only the hearts of the elect, but also the hearts of every individual gathered to celebrate the scrutinies. Every member of the community is challenged to allow the proclamation of the three Lenten gospels—to love Jesus Christ as the living water, the new light and the new life—to purify and heal their hearts. The symbols of living water, new light and new life are the very symbols of our baptism. Lent, therefore, is our yearly calling and invitation to a renewal of our baptismal privileges, promises and commitments.
Second, the presence of the elect reminds and challenges the whole community to reflect on the missionary dimension of the church and of every member of the Church community. The very reason for the existence of the Church and of all her members is for mission. The presence of the elect during the celebration of the scrutinies asks every member of the community the following questions: ‘How do I live out my missionary privilege and responsibility as a baptised Christian? How do I, through my words and actions, attract and invite others to enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ as the centre of their lives?’
If your parish is blessed with the presence of catechumens, make sure that the scrutinies are celebrated by the whole community with solemnity and integrity. If your parish does not have catechumens, ask your parish priest and your parish council, ‘Why doesn’t our parish attract new members to become followers of Christ?’
I started with a question: ‘Is it really Lent without catechumens and without the scrutinies?’ My short answer is, ‘Yes, it is, but you will be missing out on a great deal!’
Rev. Dr Elio Capra SDB, a Salesians of Don Bosco priest, lectures in liturgical and sacramental theology at Catholic Theological College, Melbourne.
This article originally appeared in The Summit Online in 2019. It is a summary of the workshop Fr Elio delivered at the liturgical planning day ‘The Lenten Jesus: Discerning the Way’. It also appeared in the March 2019 edition of Melbourne Catholic.
Featured image: Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Christ and the Woman of Samaria at the Well, 1880.