It may seem strange to be focussing on Lent during Eastertide but insights come when they will.
My brother-in-law and I oftentimes discuss “matters religious” when we get together. He is a conservative Catholic for whom doctrine and dogma are important. I am progressive and, hence, a former Roman Catholic and now an Episcopalian (Catholic). For me, as for many in the Anglican Communion, being able to pray together is more important than a common adherence to specific doctrines and dogmas.
Recently, part of our discussion has dealt with the possibility of persecution of Western Christians. (For Andy this means the persecution of Roman Catholics. My perspective is that there are Western Christians who do not identify themselves as Roman Catholic but who are members of the Body of Christ.) We agree that there is a strong possibility for persecution as the Body of the Faithful (“Church” may be too broad a term here) moves forward in our increasingly secularistic society. Roman Catholics have had this “fear” for many years. Jim Dunning used to refer to it when he talked about the catechumenate as a way to form disciples who can witness Truth to Power. On the other hand, on the Protestant side, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestled with the same “fear” and realization. We find his thinking on the matter in The Cost of Discipleship and in his wrestling with whether joining an effort to assassinate Hitler was a “right” thing for a Christian to do.
I raised the issue during a discussion of John 17: 6-19, the Gospel passage for May 17, the Seventh Sunday of Easter. This text is complex. Jesus is overheard praying for his disciples. Jesus prays to his Holy Father that Jesus has made God’s name known to the disciples. They have kept God’s word. Jesus asks his Heavenly Father to protect them “in our name.” “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world…As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
John’s Gospel was written early in the Second Century. Both Jews and Romans were persecuting Christians. They could find comfort and strength in this passage. God sent Jesus into the world to proclaim God’s Word, and he was crucified. God is sending Jesus’ disciples into the world to proclaim God’s Word. They too can expect persecution and possibly death. But they are to believe that they are sanctified in Truth. So they minister in hope as followers of Jesus.
I see this text as a reminder to Christians, even during Eastertide, that the Cross is part of our lives. This text shows the importance of intense reflection on the meaning of the Cross for us during Lent. It means we must accept that cross before we can move into the new life of a follower of Jesus. Christians celebrate Easter in the knowledge that they can carry the Cross and proclaim that Life overcomes Death, Alleluia, alleluia!
Another person in the group cautioned that we should not become alarmists and implied that Christians could become unduly paranoid if such an interpretation is advanced. I disagree. We need to have the Cross in front of us at all times as the possibility that we may be called to witness in a way that will lead to our persecution and possibly our deaths.
“Come on, Jerry. Where do you see this in our society?” Advocating for the sanctity of life is one example. Christians advocate for life. This means that we oppose abortion (but minister to the woman who is considering or has had an abortion). It also means that we advocate against our current prison system as well as against capital punishment. Christians face harsh responses when we stand up for honoring life, period. (And we often, very often, fail this command, “Thou shalt not kill.” Indeed, most of us certainly fail in our attempts to follow Jesus’ “radical” interpretation of this commandment –Do not be angry or insult or denigrate others. Opposition to abortion, capitol punishment and acts of hatred, insult and denigration is part of the Way of Jesus. Following these commands will lead to persecution.
James Finley, a commentator on Merton’s works, notes that people are good at saying “I follow Jesus” as long as that means following Jesus in his life up to but not including his passion and death. Following Jesus into and through that last part of his life is, of course, very difficult.
All of this has led me to reflect on the “Intense Preparation” (i.e. usually Lent) stage of the catechumenate. Like many catechumenate ministers, I have “tread lightly” when guiding candidates into and through Lent. We don’t want to consider the suffering to which we might be called. We don’t really want to reflect on Jesus’ Passion and Death. We don’t want to reflect on the meaning of the Cross in Christianity. We don’t want to scare away the potential candidates of baptism. But we do a disservice to our catechumens when we discount that their commitment to Jesus’ call includes a call to service and possible suffering and persecution because of that service. Perhaps we need to consider that this is part of what they hear in their call.
When the catechumenate is done correctly, the Catechumenate stage can, and often will, take more than the 6 – 8 weeks that we usually give it. It often takes a good long time to realize that following Jesus means following him into the Garden. Candidates will know when they are ready for the next “scary” step of following Jesus into the Temple and out onto the Way of the Cross. That next scary step is what Lent is all about, or should be about. Christians have diminished the importance of Lent by making it a matter of “giving up something” or resolving to do “something to help me grow” (analogous to a New Year’s resolution). The intensity of Lent includes the Presentations of Creed & Prayer, profound, guided reflection of the conversion stories and the “Prayers for Healing and Deliverance” (also known as Scrutinies and Exorcisms in the RCIA). It can also include praying and reflecting on “The Way of the Cross.” All of this is to help the candidates in their final, intense reflection of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday. Only when we and they take the profound suffering to which we may be called into our hearts and lives, can we celebrate Resurrection.
We are asking a lot of those who seek baptism. We are asking a lot of ourselves.