The plunging of an adult or an infant into the baptismal font three times is the most important moment in the baptismal ceremony, and meant to be the most moving one as well. Most of us understand that this action is associated with the Trinity. It is. But the more ancient association is with the three days Jesus lay in the tomb. This is one reason why the Church now encourages candidates for baptism to be fully immersed wherever practicable. The sprinkling of water over a catechumen’s head just doesn’t capture the drama which the ritual intends. But when we see a person take a breath, plunge under the water, and come up for air three times, we can powerfully see the identification between Jesus’ time in the tomb and the person rising to new life in Christ. The season of Lent has its origins in 3rd century Egypt where there was a commemoration of Jesus’ forty days in the desert. In the 4th century these forty days were moved to their present location in the Church’s calendar as the final preparation time for baptismal candidates at Easter, and by the 5th century these penitential and baptismal focuses came together as one season for all believers to observe. Even the word Lent, from the old English word lencten meaning Spring alerted Christians in the northern hemisphere that this season was linked to the waking of nature after the long sleep of winter. Lent is about waking up to see that light and life have come in Christ. Over the centuries the Church has tended to place more emphasis on penance than baptism in the Lenten season. The Second Vatican Council, however, went back to the most ancient sources of this season, re-established the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and encouraged us to see the link between our acts of penance and our ongoing conversion to Christ expressed in the baptismal promises made for us many years before. On this last Sunday in Lent, Lazarus is given to us to help us think about the tombs in which we lie hidden and the life to which we are called. The bad spirit seduces most of us into having some form of secretive life. It might be a secret we can’t tell, a sin we can’t confess, or a memory we want to bury. At its worst it can be a lifestyle or a pattern of unethical behavior we have divorced from the rest of our lives. We may even con ourselves into believing that all of this is normal and "not so bad." These tombs often look similar. They seem small on the surface, but as we get away with our secrets we bury ourselves in them more deeply. We jealously guard the entrance, displacing energy to defend our tombs and we’re ashamed if anyone rolls away the stone and sees the mess inside. But this Sunday Jesus stands at the entrance of our tombs and calls us out of them. We’re asked to face down the bad spirit that keeps us locked in secrecy, to move away from shame, embrace repentance, recognize the price to be paid for being true to what’s best in ourselves and we’re invited to know the light and life of Christ’s healing and forgiveness. No one can pretend that this journey is easy, but it’s what Lent is all about: the journey from the tomb of our own particular deaths, through penance to the new life of Easter. May the Eucharist allow us to see the Lord stand at our tomb and gently call us by name, "Come forth." And at his word may we be unbound and let go free. Richard Leonard, S.J.
Fifth Sunday of Lent