COME O COME O CATECHUMEN
America finally wised up to us Christians. Christmastime used to blanket the nation with bible pageants, Christian music, civic-sponsored crib scenes, and religious postage stamps on Christian greeting cards. You could say "Merry Christmas" to every phone caller. Now the country has figured out that we Christians weren't just having fun. We were catechizing. America does not tolerate the hubris of special-interest groups. So the societal values of inclusivity and multiculturalism have upstaged the Christian myth. The Christmas season has become the holiday season.
The need for catechesis just got more intense. The birth of Christ used to merit the same hype reserved today for advances in the hamburger, taco and pizza industries. Now the free ride is over. Christians and non-Christians alike, who used to get schooled in Christmas with the ease of learning to channel-surf, need help.
Ironically, the group most interested in getting the straight stuff often gets short shrift. Catechumens and candidates, absorbent for the mystery of incarnation, may be left dry by ministers shielding themselves from the bellicose maelstrom of shopping, baking, planning, rehearsing, mailing, and milling that we call Christmas. With too much to do before the feast and too much to rest from afterwards, we may surrender a few weeks of much-needed work with those who seek Christ by the flickering light of a wandering star.
At any point of the liturgical year we may address catechumens at wildly different levels of response. Some are just getting acquainted with the Catholic Church. Others could lead the sessions better than our catechists do. Some will celebrate initiation this Easter; others will wait for next. A catechumen's encounter with Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany presents unique opportunities and challenges.
Four areas of formation constitute our work with catechumens: catechesis, liturgy, community, and service (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults 75). The pastor, the musician, the catechist, the pew-dweller--all God's people share some aspect of this ministry.
The wintry season is catechetical by nature. The customs, traditions, and music of Christmas naturally beg explanation and supernaturally inspire exhortation.
Even the countercultural traditions will provoke question. For most of December you can hear Christmas carols in every store, elevator, waiting room, car radio, and web site. You just won't hear them in church. We have our reasons for protecting Advent, and the catechumen will want to know them. Decaying trees and drooping decorations will be ejected from home and business within hours of Christmas--just after we put ours up fresh. Inquirers' minds will want to know why.
The Christmas lectionary contains a font for spiritual reflection that usually goes untapped. Most people know Luke's infancy story, but not many puzzle out the prophecies or understand why these obscure epistle selections appear on Christmas day. If a dismissal for the catechesis of catechumens cannot be arranged on Christmas day, these readings merit treatment at another occasion.
Christmas invites celebrations of community. Catechumens can study the party side of Catholicism. Christmas sing-a-longs accomplish with ease what liturgical music struggles to achieve all year long. Carols harmonize the community's voice and spirit, and individuals experience their mystical connection with the body of Christ.
Party-bloated Christians who decked their halls with a little too much holly spontaneously revive an ancient community tradition--the post-Christmas fast. An early Eastern custom kept a fast for forty days after the Baptism of the Lord to imitate Jesus' retreat in the desert. You thought that was Lent? Well, before Lent became universalized we had some trial and error with the idea. Some fasted forty days after Christmas; others fasted forty days before Easter. Today's post-Christmas fast, vowed by many who partied long, has kinship in early Christian piety, where, for all we know, the figgy pudding and chocolate covered chestnut fare created memories and profiles as robust as today's. Catechumens could derive support in the Christian community from others who, having celebrated mightily the festal season, pledge a weighty new year's resolution.
Service to the community forms part of everyone's life, faithful and catechumen alike. Many assume that service belongs to confirmation preparation, but it sustains baptismal preparation and every Christian life.
Service opportunities may surface during the Christmas season. Some parishes organize them for students on winter break. Catechumens could be included to meet more of the community and catch its spirit of selflessness.
Ritual prayer, more than any other feature, guides the catechumen's journey. It also brings delight to liturgist and musician. Even though our attentions duly fix on parochial liturgical needs--setting up the wreath, prepping the choir for Christmas, contacting confessors for communal penance, ordering the poinsettias--the liturgical rituals for catechumens should not be neglected.
Word services may continue at this season as throughout the year. Catechumens benefit from a series of blessings and petitions. Such services may welcome the entire parish or unfold in a catechetical session. The oil of catechumens may safeguard those preparing for baptism during a word service. This anointing, usually smudged on infants who spend a few minutes of their lives as quasi-catechumens in the breathless rush from consignation of their forehead to pouring of water, rarely touches the group for which it is designated, the catechumens. Yet they may receive it several times if desired. A service drawing on the themes of epiphany and baptism may set a seasonal ambience for strengthening those who solicit the full manifestation of Christ in their lives.
Some candidates for reception may be ready for their rite during this time of year. Unlike the unbaptized, for whom we need a really, really good reason to initiate at some other time than the Easter Vigil, candidates for reception may be readied for the full communion of the Catholic Church at some other time. Although the Christmas cycle is already topheavy with mystery, ritual, and custom, room could (and should) be made for those Christians baptized in other communions hungry for a meal at the Catholic table.
Most tempting to catechumenate teams is scheduling the rite of acceptance during the season of Advent. Parishes that still prepare the unbaptized in the nine-month schoolyear model often figure if Lent begins with the rite of election, Advent must begin with the rite of acceptance.
They get points for purple symmetry, but not for notching spiritual progress. The periods of inquiry and of the catechumenate may last indefinitely--weeks, months, or years. It depends on the catechumen. But the period of purification and enlightenment, beginning with the rite of election, fills exactly six weeks. The rite of acceptance may be scheduled several times a year to accomodate those who respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit at seasons other than Labor Day.
An Advent rite of acceptance profitably responds to the living needs of a flexible catechumenate. However, it poses a few seasonal disadvantages which provoke some reflection.
So close to Lent, those entering the catechumenate at this stage may well be preparing for the Easter following next Advent, though some could be ready sooner. Careful discernment and explanation should accompany the preparation of this ritual so that all know what to expect.
The rite of acceptance begins at the door of the church, and many parishes invite the whole assembly outside the door, to escort the new catechumens to their place in the pew. This majestic action wins a surprisingly warm response from congregations. And in Advent, the warmer the better. Make sure people know to dress for outdoors.
Music can powerfully accompany the procession for this rite. When the assembly surrounds the isolated catechumens in song, it wraps them lovingly. But if you've ever tried to lead the singing in the Passion Sunday procession of palms, you know that outdoor music takes planning.
Christmas cycle holds ample opportunity for doing on the local level what
society used to do universally: celebrate and catechize the meaning of
Christmas. The customs, music, and
traditions of the season will find a natural and meaningful home in our parish
communities. The care we give to
catechumens at this time of year will help us express our own deeply held faith.
The Word of God becomes flesh again and again whenever the Christian
community embodies the mystery of love and shares it with the waiting world.
article first appeared in GIA Quarterly Fall 1996 (8/1):10-11.
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