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The Baptismal Aspect of Lent
THE BAPTISMAL ASPECT OF LENT
According to the liturgy documents, Lent is marked by the two themes – baptism and penance. We are very familiar with the Lenten penitential practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but what about the baptismal aspect?
In those parishes where new members will be initiated at the Easter sacraments the baptismal focus of Lent is abundantly clear.
The process of liturgical rites and catechesis by which new members are incorporated into the Catholic Church is named after the ritual book which sets it all out: the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA for short. The RCIA can perhaps best be described as a journey of faith which passes through a number of different phases or periods.
People seeking initiation in the Roman Catholic Church fall into two groups – catechumens and candidates. A catechumen is someone who has never been baptised and who will be initiated through the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist celebrated together at the Easter vigil.
Candidates are those who have already been baptised and now wish to become members of the Roman Catholic Church. They will be confirmed and receive Eucharist after a simple rite of reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church. In the past these people were often referred to as “converts”, an inappropriate name because baptism, which they have already received, is the sacrament of conversion. Most Christian Churches now accept one another’s baptism and do not re-baptise a new member.
Candidates are treated differently from catechumens in both the catechetical and liturgical aspects of the initiation process. To do otherwise is to suggest that their baptism has no meaning.
For those in the catechumenate, Lent is a period of intense preparation called the period of purification and enlightenment. The celebration of the rite of election or enrolment of names on the first Sunday of Lent marks the beginning of this stage. This ritual celebrates publicly the fact that these people have progressed on their faith journey and have opened their hearts to Christ in a spirit of faith and love.
Catechumens are “elected” for initiation into the Church, not because they have earned it, but because God has chosen them. From this point on they are known as “the elect” and the community has a particular role to play in their journey. The Church asks that we “surround the elect with prayer so that the entire Church will accompany them to encounter Christ” (RCIA 108). The elect, together with their godparents and sponsors, are living symbols of the baptismal character of Lent.
On the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent rituals called Scrutinies are celebrated with the elect. These rites confer strength and healing and confront all the faithful with the need for conversion. It is recommended that the Gospel readings of year A (this year) are used also in years B and C when the scrutinies are celebrated. These stories from John, which have been used for centuries in baptismal preparation, are filled with wonderful paschal images: thirst and water, darkness and light, death and life.
The RCIA rites call the whole community to assess its baptismal relationship with God in preparation for the renewal of baptismal promises at Easter so that “all of us may walk in newness of life and show to the world the power of the risen Christ” (Intercessions, 3rd Scrutiny).