Lenten Gospels: A Crash Course in Baptism
On Lenten Sundays, Catholics might wonder why the Gospel readings are so long. They are long because they are intended to be a biblical course on baptism, preparing for which is the purpose of Lent.
Lent is meant to get us ready for baptism.
During “Year A” in the Sunday lectionary (this year) the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent include passages from the Gospel of John, which are considerably longer than the usual Gospel readings. On the Third Sunday we heard proclaimed the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4; on the Fourth Sunday is the healing of the man born blind in John 9; and on the Fifth Sunday is the raising of Lazarus in John 11.
Why these three Gospel passages, and at uncharacteristic length?
We get a clue when we realize that the “Year A” Gospels can be used in all three years if desired, especially if there are catechumens, those preparing for baptism, in the parish.
The Gospels give shape to the whole Sunday Mass, as they are complemented by specific prefaces, which summarize the Gospel themes.
That shape is catechumenal.
Even in a large parish, there are relatively few people who will be baptized at Easter. So why does everybody get the baptismal course of the three Gospel readings?
It’s because Easter is intended to renew baptismal grace for the already baptized, too. We renew our baptismal promises at Easter Mass and are sprinkled with the newly blessed Easter water.
If Easter is to renew baptism for everyone, then Lent is for biblical instruction on baptism.
George Weigel suggests that these three weeks of Lent are meant to be lived as baptismal preparation.
“The days immediately following Ash Wednesday and the first two weeks of Lent have a penitential character, as the biblical and patristic readings at Mass and in the Liturgy of the Hours ask each of us to undertake an extended examination of conscience,” writes Weigel. “Am I being the witness to the Kingdom and the evangelical missionary that I ought to be? What within me needs purifying if I’m to become a better friend of Jesus Christ and a true embodiment of his saving grace and mercy? With whom must I be reconciled?”
“The tone shifts with the Third Sunday in Lent, as the Church begins three weeks of reflection on the meaning of baptism and the liturgy asks all the baptized to consider how well we are living in imitation of Christ,” Weigel continues. “The questions posed come from the three great catechetical Gospels. … In the early Church, the explanation of those Gospels completed the catechumens’ preparation for baptism. How am I responding to Christ’s thirst for my friendship in prayer, in light of Jesus’ 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?”
Water, light and life. It is not accidental that these are baptismal themes, manifest in the baptismal — and Easter — liturgy. 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.
There is a temptation to think the events of Holy Week can be explained apart from the divinity of Jesus, that somehow he got caught up in the political turmoil of the day and was executed in that context. The Gospel of John, which begins with the soaring prologue that affirms Jesus’ divinity, leaves no doubt that the great question at issue is the identity of Jesus.
In preparation for Holy Week, the three Gospels insist that Jesus is God, making clear that he will be executed precisely for what is viewed as the crime of blasphemy, making himself equal to God.
“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.”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus frequently uses the formulation “I am.” It is the name of God given to Moses at the burning bush: “I am.” So holy was the name of God that pious Jews did not pronounce the “I am” — and still do not today.
So when Jesus says, “I am” in the various formulations of John’s Gospel, it is a bold revelation of his divinity.
“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.”
An interesting side note is that the man born blind, when asked if he is the one who used to sit and beg, answers simply, “I am.” It is the only time in the Gospel of John that anyone other than Jesus says, “I am.” Here, too, is another dimension of baptism: The one baptized is “another Christ,” having the life of Christ within him.
Finally, Jesus says directly 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?” The question put to Martha might be considered a variation on the baptismal profession of faith.
Having clarified who Jesus is, the three Gospels illustrate that those who have encountered the Jesus who knows us better than ourselves (the woman at the well), who heals us of our most enduring faults (the man born blind), and who bestows the gift of life after death (Lazarus) are transformed into agents of evangelization. The woman who avoided the other residents of her city now rushes back to tell them about Jesus, and they invite him to stay with them. The man born blind who was ignored as a beggar now argues with the scribes about who the Messiah is and how to recognize 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 baptized are not transformed for their own sake alone, but for the sake of preaching the Gospel — for evangelization.
That’s the transformation that Easter is supposed to renew in all of the baptized each year. Preparing for that is what Lent is for.
is editor in chief
of Convivium magazine.