Sunday, March 4, 2018

Let's take the plunge (First Scrutiny)

I’m holding in my hand a lovely daily missal. It was printed when I was two years old, but the rite of baptism is exactly the same rite used when I was baptized.

I found three interesting things in the missal. The first was obvious: the sacrament was celebrated in Latin. But the other two were more remarkable. First, there was no special rite for an adult. More or less, an adult would be baptized in almost the same way as a baby.

And second, the missal makes it clear that the rite of baptism—taking perhaps fifteen minutes—was a boiled-down version of ancient ceremonies that developed during the centuries before infant baptism became the norm.

Even the short commentary in the missal swept me up into the drama of a baptism in the early Church, where a series of rites prepared the candidate for the amazing moment when he or she was baptized at the Easter Vigil. The rite for the baptism of infants seemed a very poor substitute for adults.

Happily, the Church eventually noticed the problem. In 1962, the Holy See provided new ceremonies for adults and began the restoration of the catechumenate, the period of preparation for baptism. Just a year later, the Second Vatican Council ordered further renewal of the rites of adult baptism and of the catechumenate.

Which brings us to the question: what does all that have to do with me? What does this mean for our parish in 2018?

You are about to find out. Because the renewal of the rites of adult baptism have as much to do with the parish community as they do with the person seeking baptism.

And because you’ve just heard one of the most obvious aspects of the reformed rites—the Gospel of the Samaritan woman, “the woman at the well.”

Other parishes, not blessed by someone seeking baptism at the Easter Vigil, didn’t read that story this morning. They listened to the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, with an entirely different message. But we are celebrating what’s called the first scrutiny, one of the restored rites for the Christian initiation of adults.

The scrutinies are rites that invite the catechumen—in our parish, John Lesow—to begin an intense process of self-searching and repentance. They are intended to strengthen John as he prepares for baptism—to deliver him from temptation, to help complete his conversion, and to ensure he perseveres in his decision “to love God above all.” (RCIA, 128)

At this Mass each Sunday we will offer special prayers for John, and I will bless him with a prayer of exorcism, praying he be freed from the effects of sin and given the grace of a pure heart.

And today and for the next two weeks, John and each of us will listen to the same three Gospels that the catechumens heard in the ancient Church on these Sundays of Lent.

Today’s gospel of the Samaritan woman shows us Christ, the living water that gushes up to eternal life. Next Sunday we read the story of the man born blind, in which Jesus reveals himself as the light of the world. And when we celebrate with John the third scrutiny, two Sundays from now, we will see Lazarus raised from the dead by Jesus, who reveals himself as the resurrection and the life.

As those three powerful stories enter deeply into our hearts, we will be praying for John to be filled with Christ, the living water, the light of the world, and the resurrection and the life. And we should—really we must—pray the same thing for ourselves.

Today we can ask whether the new life we received at baptism—as infants, most of us—is a gushing spring or a tiny trickle. If you’re in church this morning, the living water is probably still flowing, but is it really and truly satisfying your thirst?

I’ll give you a homespun example. A parishioner has a sauna at the back of his house, just above a stream that flows by his property. When he can’t take any more heat, he runs down to the stream to cool off. The only problem is that the stream’s only about two feet deep and he’s more than six feet tall.

So he has to lie down flat, which takes a lot of courage when the water’s freezing. I’m sure he’d love to build a dam—though he’d get in a lot of trouble—so that he could plunge into the water, so that he could be completely exhilarated by the experience.

Jesus wants our brother John and each of us to take the plunge, to be exhilarated by Holy Spirit and to experience deeply the Good News of our salvation. That’s the point of Lent, for both our catechumen and ourselves.

What Jesus promises the woman at the well is not a glass of lukewarm water in the heat of the noonday sun. It’s a cold, clear fountain of water that quenches her deepest thirst and hunger.

And what He promises the Samaritan woman he promises us.  If we’re not allowing the Holy Spirit to satisfy our thirst for joy, for peace, for clarity about our crazy lives, then we’re not drinking deeply from the well of salvation.

Let me close with the warning delivered in our first reading from the Book of Exodus.  Let’s look at the background to the angry complaining by the thirsty Israelites. Do you know the phrase “but what have you done for me lately”? That’s Israel’s complaint to the God who has delivered them from Egypt and given them victory over Pharaoh at the Red Sea.

That’s their complaint to God after he gave them fresh sweet water at Marah and Elim (Ex 15: 22-27), and quail and manna for forty years in the desert (Ex 16). Yet now they’re thirsty and quarrelling again.

It’s a bit ridiculous when you think about it, but I don’t really blame them—I confess that I sometimes find myself asking God “What have you done for me lately?”

The only answer God has to that is coming up fast—the saving passion, death, and resurrection of his Son, into which we are baptized and into which John will be baptized at the great and glorious Easter Vigil.

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