Modern Liturgy: Lectionary Catechesis
This column is written to help you prepare lectionary-based catechesis. The Order of Christian Initiation of Adults encourages this method of catechesis, but it is useful for all Christians of all ages. Not just catechumens, but grade-school children, teenagers, and small Christian communities who share faith will all benefit from a study of the church by way of the lectionary.
The purpose of lectionary-based catechesis is to form Christians in the doctrine and morals of the church by meditating on the lectionary. This method accomplishes two important goals; It grounds our beliefs in the Scriptures which gave them birth, and it links instructional topics to the liturgical year. The intent of this column is to situate the Scripture readings in their liturgical context and to guide you, the catechist, to the doctrinal and moral topics these readings illuminate.
Just when you've finished watering the lilies, dried off the neophytes, returned from spring break, and started dreaming about a glorious summer - it's time for the dreaded M-word; Mystagogy!
But don't fear! If you've celebrated a good Easter Vigil, your work is half over. Mystagogy is catechesis that reflects on what happened at the vigil. And the Scripture readings for this season help us explore the full implications of our baptismal bath. So whether you're catechizing the newly baptized, children, youth groups, or just folks, here are some thoughts to help you plunge into the pool of Easter.
Second Sunday of Easter
Except for Easter itself, no other Sunday of the year has baptism on its mind like this one. This is the eighth day of Easter, the return of Sunday, the conclusion to the "Octave" - a week that's so special it takes eight days to fill.
We hear the story of Thomas every year on this day. Jesus appears to Thomas on the "eighth day", and the story is about faith and unbelief. Today we reflect on the connection between faith and baptism. What is "faith" to me? How does baptism symbolize it? How does our threefold confession of faith connect with our threefold plunging into water?
The Acts of the Apostles replaces the Old Testament reading for the seven weeks of Easter. Today's passage focuses on the growth of the Christian community - something we've just witnessed last Sunday. Although baptism is a personal event, it is also a community event. Receiving the Eucharist is "communion." It's not just between the individual and Christ, but communion with the community of believers. This is a good week to reflect on the relationship between personal faith and the community's belief.
The Book of Revelation will provide the source for the second reading throughout this season. Today's passage helps identify who this Jesus is in whom we have placed our faith and in whose life we are baptized. It also records that the revelation to John took place on a Sunday, the day of the week we are gathered. This book is so poorly understood among Christians that it cries out for solid catechesis either today or sometime during this season. A good discussion could come from topics like fundamentalism, the nature of apocalyptic writing, and the end of the world.
The important expression from today's passage is "Son of Man." Jesus favored this description of himself. When we hear it we think of his role as judge at the end of time, and risen servant of God. Compare Mt 12:40 and 25:31.
To summarize, doctrinal topics for this week might include the following: baptism, belief and unbelief, the Creed, the purpose of preaching, the ministry of healing, the nature of community and its faith, Eucharist as "communion," the Book of Revelation, and Christology - especially under the title "Son of Man."
Third Sunday of Easter
Each year on this Sunday the Gospel records an occasion when Jesus appeared to his disciples after the resurrection on the occasion of a meal. These stories introduce us to the mystery of Eucharist as the meal of resurrection.
This is a good Sunday to explore that resurrection is more than resuscitation, and it promises eternal life to the believer. Now we may understand better that baptism is a share in the death and resurrection of Jesus. How do the symbols of baptism explain the meaning of resurrection? The Gospel also presents Peter's confession of faith. He makes it three times, just as we do in baptism. Peter's faith leads Jesus to invite him to serve and to love unto death. Everyone wants to fall in love, but then we learn its demands. It should be easy for us to reflect on the demands of love in our personal life, but what are the demands of love for our community?
Today's two other readings reveal Jesus as victor over suffering. This is a key teaching for Christianity. In a culture where suffering is avoided, covered up, or drugged over the Christian message proclaims that suffering has been conquered. Suffering is inconsequential. Suffering is not a sign of defeat: it is a situation over which Jesus is the victor. In spite of sufferings - and through them - we experience the complete victory Christ won on Easter Day.
Teachings for this week could include the following: the meaning of the Eucharist, the responsibility for Easter duty, the nature of Jesus' resurrection, baptism as a share in resurrection, the demands of Christian charity, putting faith into action, and a theology of suffering.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
The fourth Sunday of Easter always offers us the image of Jesus as the good shepherd, protecting and leading the flock into the green pastures of eternal life. The liturgy breaks chronological sequence this week: Jesus gave this discourse long before his death and resurrection. But the shepherd image resonates so well with the themes of Easter that we devote one Sunday of the season to it each year.
The Easter theme this year is the gift the shepherd offers the sheep: eternal life. It comes for those who follow him. Because of the close relationship between shepherd and sheep - "I know them, they follow me" - catechesis this week might explore the nature of prayer. How does prayer maintain the relationship begun in baptism?
Today's passage from Revelation is one of the options for the funeral liturgy. It shows that all may be saved, and holds up the martyrs as our heroes on the road to salvation. The rituals for baptism and funerals in the church borrow images from each other. How do these symbols connect and proclaim the hope which is ours after death?
The selection for Acts today picks up the message of universal salvation, as the apostles turn from preaching to the Jews to preaching to the Gentiles. Many people believe that only the baptized will be saved; yet the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) from Vatican II acknowledges that those who do not know the Gospel of Christ, but "try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience" may still achieve eternal salvation (#16). This may help put to rest pastoral concerns about relatives who were never baptized, or babies who die before baptism. (There is not scriptural foundation or official church doctrine defending "limbo.")
Teachings this week might include the following: eternal life, prayer as a relationship, the relationship between Jesus and the Father, the meaning of Christian death and its relationship to baptism, universal salvation in Christ, and the death of the unbaptized.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
The Gospel setting shifts now to the Last Supper, where we will sit with Jesus for the last few weeks of this season. The discourse of John is so rich in meaning that we best meditate on it piece by piece.
This may be a good Sunday to explain how sacraments work in the church. Sacraments are symbols of divine realities. And the Scriptures today play with rich symbols.
Jesus says that when he is gone his disciples will carry on his work, specifically the work of love. Disciples will thus be symbols - or "sacraments" - of Jesus. To witness them loving is to witness Jesus loving.
The passage from Revelation also presents a symbol for the church. The new city reminds us of the new commandment to love that Jesus gives his disciples. God dwells in the city, which makes it an image of the ideal church. If the church is the sacrament of Christ, what is its role in the modern city?
Check out today's first reading. The early church became filled with converts from pagan religions and created new structures of leadership. How does the church today change its membership, structures, ministries, and worship?
Issues for this week may include the following: what sacraments are and how they function as symbols, discipleship, the church as Body of Christ, the church as sacrament of Christ, the church's moral responsibility for being Christ in the world, and changes in the church.
Sixth Sunday of Easter
In the midst of his farewell discourse, Jesus reveals the full mystery of God: the Holy Trinity.
Teaching about the Trinity frequently intimidates catechists, but Jesus offers a toehold: Reflect on the mission of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches the disciples and reminds them of the work of Christ. You'll discover the Spirit does what you do: the Spirit offers catechesis and helps us remember Jesus. This is mystagogy; the Spirit is its origin.
Another example of the Spirit's role in the church comes from today's reading from Acts. Here we see the early church struggling with very practical questions: What do we require of Gentile converts to the Christian faith? The Spirit helps the church reach its decision. How was the Spirit present at Vatican II? How is the Spirit present with your parish council?
The vision from Revelation shows the future glory of the church. What is the goal the church strives for?
This week catechesis might take up the following: the Holy Trinity, the mission of the Holy Spirit, the nature of catechesis, the work of church councils, the future glory of the church, and the present work for church communities.
The Ascension is what makes the church possible.
The Doctrine of the Ascension is that after the resurrection, and after the miraculous appearances of Christ to his followers, Jesus ascended to the heavens; that is, he shook free from time and space, and lives now forever in heaven. The letter to the Ephesians points out that Christ is master of all, sits at the right hand of God, and is head of his body, the church.
The Ascension proclaims that our earthly existence is a shadow of eternal life. The destiny of Jesus shall soon be ours. In departing, he promises the Holy Spirit, who will carry on his living presence within the church.
In Luke's Gospel, Jesus' farewell encapsules his entire message: the suffering Messiah, the victory over death, the remission of sins, the witnessing and preaching of the church, the sending of the Spirit. This is central to all catechesis. To learn it is to learn the heart of the Gospel. How does catechesis in your community proclaim the message of Jesus alive?
Catechesis today might explore the following: the Ascension, the headship of Christ over the church, the relationship between the natural and supernatural worlds, heaven, the sacraments, the anointing of the sick, the "kerygma" - that is, the heart of the Gospel message.