The season of Lent abounds with meaningful rituals. Some of them are quite familiar to most Catholics. Others – not so much. Catholics and non-Catholics alike know that Lent begins with the blessing of ashes on our foreheads in the sign of a cross as a sign of repentance. On the Sunday before Easter our churches are usually more crowded because lots of folks come to receive blessed palms to keep in their homes throughout the year as a sign of faith in Jesus the Christ. On Good Friday we venerate the cross and just about everyone in church comes forward to offer a sign of reverence with a kiss or a touch.
During the first weekends of Lent Rites of Election take place, usually in the cathedral church. Throughout the year people prepare to be received into the church for the sacraments of Christian initiation at Easter. The catechumens are invited to the cathedral to be chosen by the bishop for the Easter sacraments. They are usually accompanied by their godparents, teachers and friends. This year Bishop Steiner and I presided at six such rites, three at the cathedral and three others in Grants Pass, North Bend and Eugene. Certainly people like to come and visit the cathedral, the bishop’s church, for this “election,” but because of the great distances many people would have to travel, we bishops travel instead.
But rituals that are not quite so familiar to most Catholics are the ones called the Scrutinies. These take place in the parishes while the elect are readying themselves for Baptism. They occur on the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent. Whenever I am visiting a parish on one of those Sundays, I always am careful to check about the readings being chosen for the celebration of the Eucharist. We have three cycles, A, B and C. This is Year C when the gospel of Luke is usually proclaimed. But when the Scrutinies take place, the readings from Year A are chosen. A preacher will want to know in advance about the readings that have been chosen.
When the Year A readings are proclaimed, the gospel about the Samaritan woman who met Jesus and spoke with him at the well is proclaimed on the third Sunday of Lent. The symbolism of the baptismal water by which we are cleansed of sin is obviously in play. Then on the fourth Sunday the story of the cure of the man who was born blind is told. We ponder the mystery of the light of faith by which we begin to see things the way God sees them, not only the way we do. Finally on the fifth Sunday we hear about the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The life of grace and eternal life are gifts from God to be pondered and celebrated. Each story has been described as a kind of “passover” - from the woman’s dishonesty to truth, from the blindness of the man whom Jesus cured to sight, and from the death of Lazarus to life.
What then are these Scrutinies? The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) describes the Scrutinies as “rites for self-searching and repentance and above all a spiritual purpose. The Scrutinies are meant to uncover, then heal all that is weak, defective or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out and strengthen all that is upright, strong and good. The Scrutines are celebrated in order to deliver the elect from the power of sin and Satan, to protect them against temptation, and to give them strength in Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life.”
The Scrutinies take place after the homily. The elect are invited to step forward with their godparents. They bow their heads or kneel. Everyone in church is asked to pray with them and for them. The whole purpose is to arouse in all of us, not just the elect, a greater sense of sin, an important theme in our Lenten observance. Today too many people trivialize sin and scarcely pay attention to the difference between good and evil. Then the church prays that the elect will be free from the power of Satan. We usually call this prayer an exorcism. As we were reminded on the first Sunday of Lent, Satan and evil are truly powerful and we need Christ’s help to escape unscathed.
Throughout the season of Lent all Catholics are invited to walk with the elect as they journey throughout the holy season to the Easter sacraments. We pray, fast, perform good works and search our own hearts and souls for the sinfulness that still needs to be healed by God’s gracious mercy. In that respect the Scrutinies involve all of us because, even though all the baptized have been cleansed from original sin, we still experience spiritual darkness in our lives and need to renew the light of Christ and receive his healing grace. For that reason even a modified version of the Scrutines in parishes where there are no elect to be baptized at Easter is worth celebrating on these Lenten Sundays.
The Scrutinies include special prayers for the elect but they are prayers that also take on special meaning for all of us. The rites of the Scrutinies always include exorcisms, simple prayers that the evil spirit may be cast out by the power of the Holy Spirit. When the elect are present for the Scrutinies, on the first Sunday they receive the Creed and on the third Sunday the Our Father. What we believe and how we pray are important learnings for a successful life of faith. The forgiveness of sin is rightly accompanied by a grateful embrace of the essential teachings of Christ and his church and a recommitment to daily prayer as Jesus taught.
During this Year of Faith Pope Benedict XVI encouraged us to seize this moment for spiritual healing from our own personal sinfulness. Whereas many of our people may be unfamiliar with the Scrutinies as a ritual of spiritual cleansing, we all know about Confession. This season of Lent is definitely a time for receiving the grace of the sacrament of Penance. Lent is already half gone and if thus far you have not taken the time to receive that beautiful sacrament, I encourage you to do so now and not to wait until Holy Week.
When all is said and done, Lenten rituals, especially the Scrutinies, remind us how serious the Christian life really is and they inspire us to turn away from whatever evil haunts us and to pursue the good with all our mind, with all our heart and with all our soul.