This article was originally featured in the Getting It Rite - Lent & Easter resource (2014).
The aim of this article is to explore the power and the beauty of the prayers of exorcism of the three scrutinies to be celebrated during the third, fourth and fifth Sunday of Lent. Through the scrutinies (especially the prayers of exorcism) Jesus Christ renews the hearts of the elect and of the community by first removing the blindness, errors, betrayals, illness, wounds, weariness, witherings and tarnishings and then replenishing their hearts with his divine love.
The Rite provides two options for the prayers of exorcisms: option A and B. The prayers find their starting point and their source in the three Johannine Gospels: the Samaritan woman (John 4:5-32), the blind man (John 9:1-41), and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45). These prayers cannot be isolated from the rituals surrounding them. “After the homily, the elect with their godparents come forward and stand before the celebrant … The elect bow their heads or kneel … During the intercessions the godparents stand with their right hand on the shoulder of the elect.” (RCIA 160-161)
The structure of each of the prayers is threefold:
- The first section is always addressed to God, who sent Jesus Christ. The prayer continues by remembering (anamnesis) the action of Jesus Christ who met the Samaritan woman, who cured the blind man, and who raised Lazarus from the dead. God is then asked to protect and free the elect from sinfulness.
- Part two of these prayers is a ritual: “Here, if this can be done conveniently, the celebrant lays hands on each of the elect.” (RCIA 141) This ritual is very important as it proclaims that the Church believes that through the power of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis) and the ministry of the Church, God’s action on behalf of his people becomes a reality in the lives of these elect.
- The third part of the prayer begins with a ritual: “Then, with hands outstretched over the elect, he continues.” This action is followed by a prayer addressed to Jesus asking him to do today to the elect what he did for the Samaritan woman, the man born blind and Lazarus. The rest of the prayer is twofold asking Jesus to remove any obstacles from the hearts of the elect so that they can live their lives as witnesses of Christ’s love to the world.
The First Scrutiny
In a previous article we have already explored what Jesus did for the Samaritan woman (John 4:5-32) . Her encounter with Jesus was a process of conversion which made her fall in love with Christ by removing and cleansing from her heart her un-Christ-like desires in order to change her into a witness in the name of Christ to her whole town.
The Second Scrutiny
In the second scrutiny, the prayer is centred on the healing of the blind man and the blindness of the Pharisees (John 9:1-41). The man born blind and the blindness of the Pharisees become the symbol of the sinfulness and darkness of the human condition. This condition will remain permanent and irrevocable if the elect rely on their own resources. The only one who can remove this darkness is Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Both options present this contrast between the darkness of the human heart and the surprising light that Jesus can bring to their lives. When the elect open their hearts and begin to ‘rejoice in your [Christ’s] light’ then they will gradually begin to recognise that Christ is the only one who can transform their blindness into light. In the Gospel story this process of conversion is highlighted by the titles the blind man uses when referring to Jesus: the man called Jesus (v. 11), a prophet (v. 17). Messiah (v. 32), and ‘Lord, I believe’ (v. 38). The prayers also make reference to the blindness of the Pharisees who choose to cling to their ‘false values’ and therefore remain ‘enslaved by the father of lies’. As the story unfolds, the Pharisees see themselves as being in the light in contrast to the blind man whom they considered a sinner because of his blindness. At the end of the story the Pharisees remain in their blindness and darkness in contrast to the blind man who has now embraced the light both physically and spiritually. The prayer concludes imploring the Lord that these elect who have received the light of Christ may ‘be staunch and fearless witnesses to the faith’. Because their hearts have been transformed by the light of Christ, the elect can now leave behind their darkness and sinfulness and become bearers of light to others.
The Third Scrutiny
The final scrutiny brings the drama of God’s love for us to a new dimension. In the Gospel story (John 11:1-45) the situation of Lazarus is in direct contrast with the role and the mission of Jesus. Lazarus is surrounded by symbols of death: a body buried in the earth, reduced to decay and stench in the darkness of the tomb. This is the tragedy of humanity when enslaved by sin. Men and women, who are created in the image and likeness of God and who are called to reflect God’s glory in their words and deeds, are reduced by sin to lifeless creatures dwelling in the darkness of sin.
The first part of the prayer, option A, contrasts the enslavement of sin to the freedom of Jesus Christ who has come to bring life to the world. He is the one who has the power to free human beings from the slavery of Satan and death. All of this is proclaimed at the beginning of the prayer: “Father of life and God not of the dead but of the living, you sent your Son to proclaim life, to snatch us from the realm of death, and lead us to the resurrection.”
The raising of Lazarus shows forth the power that Jesus has over death. But his resurrection shows forth the power that Jesus has to free us from eternal death and to lead us into eternal life.
How is this going to come about? Through the sacraments of initiation, especially the sacrament of baptism. Option A only makes one reference to the sacraments of initiation awaiting the elect: ‘who await your life-giving sacraments’. Option B makes references to baptism both in the first part and second part of the prayer: ‘for they long for a new life through baptism …’ ‘who eagerly approach the waters of new birth and hunger for the banquet of life.’ (RCIA 162)
The prayers, like the Gospel passage, also make reference to the other characters in the story: Martha, Mary and the Jews. Like Martha and Mary, the elect and the community are on a journey of conversion of accepting and embracing Jesus Christ not just as a miracle worker but also as their life and resurrection.
The presence of the community and the godparents is a reminder to all that we have a role to play in the journey of conversion of the elect. In the Gospel story it is the crowd that leads Jesus to the tomb; members of the crowd are asked to remove the stone covering the tomb and to unbind Lazarus. The crowd plays a role in the story but it is not in the power of the crowd to bring back Lazarus to life. In the same way the role of the parish community is important but ultimately it is Christ who gives life, eternal life.
Again both options contain strong missionary elements: ‘so that they may bear witness to their new life in the risen Christ … and give witness to your glory before all …’ (RCIA 162)
Basically the elect are called to remove from their hearts all that is deathgiving so that they may be filled with Christ’s life, a life of ‘faith, hope and charity’. The role of the scrutiny prayers is to invite the elect and the community to a progressive growth in their loving relationship with Jesus Christ. The third scrutiny offers them the unique gift of sharing in the very life of Christ. They are called to live their life with Christ and for Christ. In the story some members of the crowd come to believe in Christ while others become more determined to put to death He who has come to bring them eternal life.
The love that Jesus offers the elect invites them to re-orient the way they look and live their lives. The love that Jesus offers makes strong demands of them. They no longer live their lives for themselves: “What do I want to get out of my life?” Each day they now begin with a very different question: “Because Jesus is my life and my salvation, what does he want me to do with my life today?”
The scrutinies are therefore important to both the elect and the community and that is why the Rite demands that they should not be omitted but celebrated solemnly and publicly.
They can give meaning and purpose to the whole season of Lent. The prayers are prayed over the elect but the community is also invited and challenged to enter into the season of Lent not just by ‘giving up something’ but by joining the elect in removing from their hearts whatever prevents them from making Christ the centre of their lives. The scrutiny prayers make it clear that Christ is the source who can replenish the love in their hearts.
One of the catechetical ways of preparing the elect and the parish community to celebrate the scrutinies well and to fully enter into the spirit of the scrutiny prayers is to make use of the powerful image provided by the prophet Hosea.
For him the relationship between God and Israel is a relationship of love. God is the Bridegroom and Israel is the Bride who has become lukewarm in her love. So this is what the Lord plans to do: “That is why I am going to lure her and lead her into the wilderness and speak to her heart … There she will respond to me as she did when she came out of the land of Egypt.” (Hosea 2:16-17)
True conversion can only take place when the heart of the elect and the community is totally and completely focused on the Beloved. Once the heart has been transformed, the rest of their life will begin to change: “I will betroth you to myself for ever, betroth you with integrity and justice, with tenderness and love; I will betroth you to myself with faithfulness, and you will come to know the Lord.” (Hosea 2:19-20)
So this Lent don’t just give up something. Instead let yourself be lured into the wilderness. Fall in love as you listen to your Beloved’s words of tenderness, faithfulness and love. Strengthened by Christ’s love go out and become a witness of his love to the world.
Rev. Dr Elio Capra SDB is a lecturer in Liturgy at Catholic Theological College and a member of the Australian Catechumenate Network.
ARCHBISHOP'S OFFICE FOR EVANGELISATION 2017 © REV. DR ELIO CAPRA SDB