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Baptism, Penitence  
Mary Birmingham  

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (CSL) affirms two prominent themes during the season of Lent: baptismal and penitential. The latter theme is a generally accepted Lenten focus. Catholics have a well-developed sense of the penitential nature of the season. What is less developed is a sense of the baptismal nature of Lent. The Church is nevertheless insistent on the importance of both themes. "The baptismal and penitential aspects of Lent are to be given greater prominence in both the liturgy and liturgical catechesis" (CSL, #109).

This more easily comes to fruition when parishes celebrate each of the Lenten rites that are part of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). The time prior to initiation is referred to as the period of purification and enlightenment.

The Church reminds us that

Lent is a preparation for the celebration of Easter. The Lenten liturgy disposes both the catechumens and the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery; catechumens, through the several stages of Christian initiation; the faithful, through reminders of their own Baptism and through penitential practices. (General Norms for the Liturgical Year [GNLY], #27)

In the early Church, Lent evolved as a time of intense prayer and fasting in preparation for the reconciliation of penitents, the initiation of candidates, and the paschal feast. Christians were in solidarity with penitents and with those preparing for Baptism. The entire community engaged in baptismal preparation with the attention on the elect preparing for Baptism at the Vigil. Adolf Adam explains:

Christians saw in fasting a way of preparing for the reception of the Spirit, a powerful weapon in the fight against evil spirits, an appropriate preparation for the reception of baptism and the eucharist and a way of being able to help the poor with money that would otherwise have been spent on food. . . . What the church required of penitents and candidates [for Baptism] by way of liturgical and spiritual effort was also done by the faithful in solidarity of spirit and, to some extent, in reality as well. An atmosphere of cooperation and reciprocity was thus established that benefited the entire community. (Adam, Adolf, The Liturgical Year (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1990, pp. 93 - 94)

Every morning the catechumens were prayed for during the Mass, and three hours a day were spent in prayer. Scrutinies were celebrated on the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent.

By the fifth century, a major development occurred in the Roman observance of Lent. During the second through fourth centuries, there evolved a well-developed process for becoming Christian, which at its peak spanned three years of preparation, catechesis, and formation. This peak is often referred to as the Golden Age of Christian Initiation. With the spread of Christendom, came the steady decline of the number of adult candidates for the catechumenate. Infant Baptism became the norm. The baptismal focus of Lent receded into the shadows and the penitential focus rose to the fore. Fervor for a 40-day fast was dominant, and rites associated with the preparation of the elect began to disappear or be radically transformed. By the end of the fifth century, the celebration of the scrutinies was moved to weekdays. The meaning of the liturgies of Lent became obscure and would remain so for centuries.

The Second Vatican Council restored the original meaning and practice of Lent (see CSL, #109). The liturgy, homilies, and catechesis emphasizing the two-fold nature of the season reflect this, as does the celebration of the scrutinies/exorcism and presentation of the Lord's Prayer and Creed.

Lent is not just a time of baptismal preparation for the elect but also a time of baptismal renewal for the faithful. Both the elect and the people of God are to reflect on the mystery of sin in its personal and social forms in order to seek deliverance from Christ, the Divine Liberator.

CSL states:

More use is to be made of the baptismal features proper to the Lenten liturgy; some that flourished in bygone days are to be restored as may seem good. The same is to apply to the penitential elements. As regards instruction it is important to impress on the minds of the faithful not only a social consequences of sin but also that essence of the virtue of penance which leads to the detestation of sin as an offence against God; the role of the Church in penitential practices is not to be passed over, and the people must be exhorted to pray for sinners. During Lent penance should not be only internal and individual, but also external and social. The practice of penance should be fostered in ways that are possible in our own times and in different regions, and according to the circumstances of the faithful. (#109 -110)

Communities that are attentive to communal celebrations of Penance and to the full celebration of the scrutinies and their implications for Christian living must be serious about the directives just cited. The elect inquire of God and themselves: Where is conversion still needed before they enter into this new life? Where does sin still lurk in their lives? In what way do they still contribute to social sin by their actions, attitudes and behaviors? The faithful not only echo those same questions, but they are invited to discern even further: In what way have they authentically lived their role as priest, prophet, and king during this past year? Are they willing to stand with the elect at Easter and for yet another year commit to living a renewed baptismal life? The Lenten baptismal rites assist us in this discernment. In the Rite of Exorcism, the elect are freed from the effects of sin (see RCIA, #144) and are infused with illuminating grace, who is Christ, the Savior. The scrutinies also serve as a reminder to the faithful that they too must continue the ongoing work of conversion and repentance (see #138). Scrutinies parallel for the elect what the sacrament of Penance accomplishes for the faithful.

The Church, in her wisdom, insists that scrutinies are to be celebrated. The day on which they are celebrated may be moved in the event of rare pastoral circumstances, but they may not be omitted (#146). For it is through such powerful penitential rites that all - elect and the faithful - are invited to seek out what is in need of purification so that Christ's light may replace the darkness residing within.

Those responsible for the preparation of the liturgy would do well to bring the dual concentration of the season to the fore. So that the penitential theme of Lent does not overshadow the baptismal theme, a concerted effort should be made to bring the latter into clearer focus. CSL exhorts the use of homilies, catechesis, and the celebration of initiatory rites to accomplish that. Seasonal music also plays a role. One example that clearly is in the spirit of that Lenten exhortation is Kevin Keil's adaptation of Psalm 51 with a refrain that returns to the two themes of Lent: "Signed by water, signed by ashes, secure in your love, O God" ("Signed by Ashes," Ursuline Academy of Cleveland. Music © 1996, Kevin Keil. Published by OCP Publications).

The prominence of the baptismal theme in the Lenten liturgy is particularly evident expressed by the use of the Year A Gospels for the celebration of the scrutinies on the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent. The "Johannine signs" (as they are often referred to) are historically viewed as symbols of Christian Baptism. Because of the baptismal images of water and the Spirit, the light of faith, and death and Resurrection, the three scrutiny Gospels (the woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus) were used during the ancient three-week preparatory period of Lent as primary baptismal catechesis.

During Lent, the faithful prepare to recall the climactic event of Baptism and recommit to the covenant that was forged with God. The scrutiny Gospels not only form the elect, they assist the faithful in their preparation to renew their baptismal promises. Ultimately, however, the elect and faithful together stand on the precipice of this holy season with the hope and intention that such a fire and spirit will root out from the core all that would keep them from recognizing that same fire and Spirit in their lifelong mission to offer "thanksgiving, service and praise to the end" (Birmingham, Mary, Word and Worship Workbook for Year B, Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2000, pp. 164 -165).

© 2013 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
3949 South Racine Ave, Chicago IL 60609

Mary Birmingham
is Director of Liturgy and Music at Ascension Catholic commuity in Melbourne, Florida, and a team member of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate.
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