The Church numbers the Sundays during the Great Fast in successive order. Thus today is the First Sunday, next week will mark the Second Sunday and so on. For many people the Fast is an endurance test and so this numbering may suggest something like, “Oh God, only one week is over. There’s another five weeks to go!” A more positive way of looking at things might number the Sundays in count-down fashion: Sixth Sunday before Pascha…Fifth… Fourth… it’s getting closer… we’re almost there!
This system may be more in keeping with the vision expressed in the Scriptures read at this Sunday’s Liturgy. Scholars tell us that this selection comes to us from the days when catechumens were intensifying their preparation for baptism at Pascha. The readings suggest promise, blessing and the joy of being part of God’s plan at its most critical moment.
The Epistle to the Hebrews, read every Saturday and Sunday during the Fast, is addressed to Jewish believers in Christ. It includes a number of references to Jewish history and practice, some recorded in the Old Testament and others taken from Jewish tradition. The passage read today, from chapter 11, is actually the conclusion of a longer praise of Old Testament notables renowned for their faith, from Abel onward. It is faith that sanctified all these elders in Jewish history because “…without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb 11:6). Catechumens, who would be asked to profess their faith during this season, are thus reminded to place their trust in the Person of God and in the wisdom of His divine plan for mankind.
The punch line of this chapter, however, is its last verse. Despite their faith, the heroes and heroines of the Old Testament “… did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not have been made perfect apart from us.” The entire course of God’s providential care for the Jewish peoples is depicted as a kind of preparation for something more. That “something better” is, of course, the life in Christ which the catechumens will receive at baptism and the assurance of eternal life which we all will receive as witnesses to the resurrection of Christ.
The Promise to Nathaniel
While the Gospel according to St. Mark is read at all other Liturgies during the Fast today the Church turns to the Gospel of John. We hear in detail of the Lord’s first encounter with this future disciple, but again the purpose of reading it today is in the punch line, the last verse of the passage: “Most assuredly I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (Jn 1:51). Again we have the promise of “something better” to be fulfilled in the future.
Whether we are catechumens preparing for baptism or faithful preparing for Pascha today, we are being told that, with faith, we will see the inauguration of the new age, the fulfillment of all promises, and the manifestation of the Kingdom, in the resurrection of Christ.
A number of Fathers including St John Chrysostom said that the descending and ascending of the angels promised here was fulfilled in the Paschal mystery. As the Blessed Theophylact, eleventh-century Archbishop of Ochrid in Bulgaria, emphasized in his Explanation of the Gospel of St. John “All these things did, in fact, take place at His Crucifixion and Ascension. As the time of His Passion approached, an angel from heaven strengthened Him; at His Tomb there was an angel, and again at His Ascension, as Luke relates.”
The Church reads these promises to us today saying: You catechumens will be joined to the company of the saints when you will be enlightened, taste the heavenly gift and be partakers of the Holy Spirit (see Hebrews 6:4). All of us will see heaven opened in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the empty tomb and on Mount Olivet as we enter into the celebration of Pascha. And finally we will hear another promise from the angels at Christ’s Ascension: “This same Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Those forty days don’t seem so long now, do they?
Catechumens in the Church Today
In the early centuries of the Church in the Mediterranean world the catechumens received at Pascha were adults. During the persecutions they were people who had been attracted by the unwavering faith of the martyrs. After the persecutions were ended it was often the recognition by the state that gave people the impetus they needed to join the Church. When the Church was firmly established as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, the baptism of infants began to outnumber the baptism of adults.
The Byzantine Liturgy retains a number of features from the period of the adult catechumenate. At every Divine Liturgy and every Presanctified Liturgy there are the prayers for and dismissal of catechumens. In some local Churches they are still a part of every Liturgy; in others they are omitted unless there are actual catechumens present. In addition, during the last weeks of the Great Fast, prayers for those preparing for baptism at Pascha are added.
In fact there has never been a time when there have not been catechumens in one or another of the Byzantine Churches. The expansion of Eastern Christianity into the Balkans and the Slav lands brought whole new peoples to the font. In the second millennium the eastward expansion of the Russian Church into Asia and ultimately Alaska did the same. More recently the Christian Churches in Africa – Catholic Orthodox and Protestant – have grown enormously. With the end of Communism, as with the end of the Roman persecutions, many came forward for baptism in those nations as well.
In our country the presence of catechumens in a parish is a kind of litmus test about the life of the parish. Are there catechumens or not? Are the only catechumens we receive those who will marry into one of the parish families? If there are no catechumens is it because our parish is more club than church? Are we content with the absence of catechumens – and the absence of vocations – in the parish as long as things are done our way? If so our celebration of Pascha will be missing something critical. The catechumens – and perhaps the angels – will have gone elsewhere.