Sunday Mass, if we were able to go to it, would be a bit longer these weeks, even without the Gloria. We are in the midst of Lent’s long Gospels.
That’s not their official name. Compared to regular Sunday fare though, the Gospel readings are much longer than usual. The three passages from John’s Gospel read on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent are among the longest Gospel passages read at Mass throughout the year. The passages tell of three encounters with Jesus. They are fundamental to our understanding of Lent: the Samaritan woman (John 4:5-42), the man born blind (John 9:1-41) and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45).
So important are these three passages that, while they are mandated for one year of the lectionary’s three-year cycle – Year A, which falls this year – they can be used for all three years if the pastor so chooses. Moreover, they are recommended if there are catechumens in the parish.
Why are these three encounters so important?
“In the early Church, the explanation of those Gospels completed the catechumens’ preparation for baptism,” wrote George Weigel in his book on Lent, Roman Pilgrimage: “How am I responding to Christ’s thirst for my friendship in prayer, in light of Jesus’s invitation to the Samaritan woman, whom he asked for a drink of water? How are my eyes being opened to the demands of my mission, by the Christ who gave sight to the man born blind? Do I, like Martha, truly believe that Jesus is the Son of the living God, with power to raise me, like Lazarus, from the bonds of sin and death?”
Placing these three “catechumenate” Gospels in Lent thus gives the season a catechumenal character. In Lent, all of us are preparing for baptism, insofar as all of us are invited by the Easter liturgy to renew our baptismal promises. That is why we substitute the Apostles’ Creed for the Nicene Creed in Lent.
We are preparing to renew our baptismal promises at Easter, and so we return to the Church’s ancient baptismal formula, the Apostles’ Creed, which is still used in baptisms today. At Easter we are sprinkled with the newly blessed Easter water, baptismal water. Easter is a “new” baptism; we are all catechumens in Lent. John’s three encounters focus on water, light and life. These are made concrete in the baptismal and Easter liturgies.
In these three encounters, there are two common dimensions. The first is a clarification of who Jesus is; the second is the difference that the grace of Jesus makes.
The liturgy of baptism does the same. First, those who are to be baptised – or their parents – are to profess their faith that Jesus is Lord. Then they are instructed that this means their life is to be different, conformed to Christ and not to the world.
In the three Gospels Jesus makes His identity abundantly clear and invites the response of faith.
“I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything,” says the Samaritan woman. Jesus replies: “I am he, the one speaking with you.”
“Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asks the man born blind. “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” the man replies. Jesus says to him: “You have seen him, the one speaking with you is he.”
Finally, Jesus says to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Having confessed faith in Jesus, all three figures now embrace the evangelising dimension of their discipleship.
The woman who avoided the other residents of her city now rushes back to tell them about Jesus. The man born blind who was ignored as a beggar now argues with the scribes about who the Messiah is and how to recognise him. And a man in the most passive, incapable state – dead in the tomb – returns to be a living witness to the power of Jesus. The three Gospels reveal that the baptised are not transformed for their own sake alone, but for the mission of evangelisation.
That’s the transformation that Easter is supposed to renew in all the baptised each year. Preparing for that is what Lent is for.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca