Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mark's thoughts: Catechumenate during Lent in a Lutheran parish

At the beginning of Romans chapter 6, Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:3-5).  In this passage, Paul brings Christ’s death and resurrection together with the baptism of Christians.  He says that through baptism we have shared in Jesus Christ’s saving death on the cross.  Yet because Christ is our risen Lord, baptism provides the guarantee that we will also share in our Lord’s resurrection on the Last Day.

By the fourth century A.D. this biblical connection between the death and resurrection of Christ and Holy Baptism prompted the Church to make the Vigil of Easter the primary time for baptizing new Christians.  The remembrance of Jesus’ death on Good Friday had just taken place and Saturday reminded the Christians that Christ has been buried in the tomb.  Yet Saturday evening was also the first service of Easter and so it celebrated Christ’s resurrection that Christians have a share in because of baptism.  Lent was the time when catechumens preparing to join the Church were in the midst of catechesis as they prepared to receive Holy Baptism at the Vigil of Easter.  The presence of the catechumens reminded the Church that Lent is a return to baptism for all Christians. During Lent as we prepare again to remember our Lord’s death and resurrection, we are also preparing to remember that we have shared in that death and resurrection through the foundational event of Holy Baptism. 

In Lutheran congregations that employ the catechumenate as the means for bringing new members into the fellowship, this continues to be the experience of the Church. On the First Sunday in Lent (Invocavit in the one year lectionary), catechumens are enrolled as Candidates for Baptism and (if they have already been baptized) as Candidates for Confirmation and  Reception into Membership.  On that day catechumens approach the chancel with their sponsor.  Catechumens publicly affirm their desire for baptism, or that that in affirmation of her baptism they wish to confess the faith and be confirmed and received as a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and of that congregation.

Sponsors attest that catechumens have been faithful in attending the Divine Service and in receiving catechesis; that they are seeking by study, prayer and example to pattern their lives in accordance with the word of God.  At Good Shepherd Lutheran, Marion, IL the pastor then asks the congregation: “People of God, as you journey through Lent, will you support these persons through your prayer, presence, and example?  As you observe the disciplines of Lent, will you be for them a community of love and growth in God’s grace?”

The congregation affirms that it will do this with the help of God, and then the catechumens are welcomed as Candidates for Baptism, and for Confirmation and Reception in to Membership. Then a blessing is spoken in the form of a prayer: “Almighty and merciful God, Creator of all that is, you have called your people from darkness into light, from error into truth, from death into life.  In your pity you looked upon a fallen world, and sent Your only begotten Son among us to vanquish the evil one.  Purify the desires and thoughts of this your servants with the light of Your Holy Spirit.  Nourish them with Your holy Word, strengthen them in faith, and confirm them in good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This same blessing is spoken on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays in Lent.  On these days after the sermon the candidates approach the chancel and join the Church in renouncing evil (Third Sunday), and they receive the Creed (Fourth Sunday) and the Lord’s Prayer (Fifth Sunday) from the congregation.  The congregation speaks these words which summarize the catechesis in faith and prayer that  the candidates have received, and emphasizes the importance of confession of the faith and prayer as the candidates enter into the fellowship. 

The candidates then take part in Holy Week with the congregation and journey through the Triduum – the one service that runs through the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Holy Saturday.  At the Vigil of Easter they approach the font in order to receive Holy Baptism or to affirm their baptism.  Then they are be confirmed, received into membership and receive the Sacrament of the Altar for the first time as they share with congregation in the sacrament of unity. 

This process during Lent serves two purposes in the life of the congregation.  The first is to emphasize the role that members have in supporting candidates through prayer, example and words of encouragement as they prepare to be received in the fellowship of the congregation.   The second is to remind the congregation that as the candidates make this journey, congregation members are also called during Lent to renew their focus on what Holy Baptism means for their life.  Holy Baptism means that  those who have shared in the saving death of Christ will share in His resurrection on the Last Day. And it means that already now the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit is at work in them so that they can walk in newness of life as they confess the faith in word and deed. 

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