Book Review: Liturgical Theology (6/8)

Liturgical Theology by Simon Chan

Part Two: Practices – Chapter 5: the Catechumenate

Until very recently, life afforded people a more stable identity.  An occupation was typically a life-long and life-lasting vocation.  Post-modernism has shattered this paradigm, allowing (or forcing) people to create their own identity, not only in disparate social settings but also online.

  • Challenge: how do we respond to the call to be the Church?  How do we, practically, realize our ecclesial identity?
  • The catechumenate was the ancient process to help people break out of the old life and embrace their new life in Christ.
  • The mission of God is inseparable from the Church’s identity.

History of the Catechumenate

The first Christians were Jews who were in direct continuity with the Old Testament community, but Gentiles needed more catechizing.

  • Justin Martyr’s account of baptismal requirements:
    • Sorrow for sin
    • Faith in the Church as the teacher of truth
    • Transformation of life
  • Hyppolytus’ account of baptismal requirements:
    • A sponsor for the candidate
    • Motive for Baptism evaluated
    • Family and occupation evaluated
    • Hear the Word for up to 3 years
    • Fasting and exorcisms in preparation
  • Pre-Constantinian catechumens were already converted; post-Constantinian catechumens were not necessarily converted yet.
  • RCIA revives the historic process quite closely:
    • Period of evangelization culminating in a rite of acceptance as a catechumen
    • Period of catechizing culminating in “the enrollment of names”
      • Includes exorcism and renunciation of false worship

      Period of purification and enlightenment followed by Baptism

      • Occurs during Lent to undergo “scrutinizes,” uncover & heal sins, and strengthen the good

      Period of post-baptismal catechesis (or mystagogy)
      This is all set in the broader liturgical context of the Church – not mere indoctrination, but real liturgical and ecclesial formation!

 Nature of the Catechumenate

Becoming a Christian isn’t just a change of heart, it’s a transference of citizenship.

  • The Catechumenate attempts to shape individuals to fit into the gospel story.
  • Doctrine and morality and spirituality all must be fostered in the catechumen.

 Content of Catechisms

Three basic features consistently show up throughout history

  • Apostles’ Creed = Christian belief
  • The Ten Commandments = Christian ethics
  • The Lord’s Prayer = Christian spirituality
  • These are not separate studies, but flow naturally one from another.
    • The creed is the faith confessed, the Decalogue is the faith lived out, and the Lord’s Prayer is the faith expressed in personal communion with God.

 Liturgical context of the Catechism

The Creed, Ten Commandments, and Lord’s Prayer all show up in the liturgy of the Church.

  • The Creed is a “speech act,” a pledge reaffirming our ecclesial identity.
  • All three are best appreciated in the liturgy.
    • We worship with them and then allow them to spill out into our daily lives.
    • If we don’t use them in worship, they become meaningless dogma, cold moralism, and wayward private piety.
  • Catechesis is different from typical seminars and training programs because of its natural link to the worship of the Church.  It builds upon a regular experience, rather than speaks out of a vacuum.

The Apostles’ Creed was often called the symbol of faith.

  • It was “traditioned” to catechumens when they started out, and recited back at their baptismal examination.
  • “Beginning with Baptism, the Credo denotes a boundary line between world and church” (p111).
  • The Creed is “the faith of the Church” – not that it can drag individuals along who don’t participate, but the faith is in the Church first and the individual second.
  • The Creed is typically recited after the sermon, signaling our intellectual submission to God, and willingness to obey Him.

The Ten Commandments have been used in a number of different ways through history.

  • Luther’s two “uses” of the Law: to restrain evil in the world and to convict sin.
  • Catholic and Anglican liturgies use the Decalogue as a preparation for confession.
  • Calvin’s Genevan Rite reads the Decalogue after the confession to highlight the Law’s use as an expression of gratitude for God’s redeeming grace.
  • The grace of the Law is noteable in Exodus 20:2, Psalms 1 & 119, and the Heidelberg Catechism.
  • The place of the Decalogue matches the place of Jesus’ “new commandment” – both are prefaces to covenant relationships with God.

“The Lord’s prayer is a summary of the prayer of the church” (p114).

  • Prayer is turning away from self and focusing on God.
    • “Initiation into the Christian community means that ‘I’ can no longer be the center.  The world no longer revolves around me – my desires, my ambitions, my career and (especially for post-modern people) my right to self-fulfillment” (p114).
    • “The paradigm shift from being myself to being a member of Christ can come about only through prayer.  Learning the Lord’s Prayer, therefore, is more than learning a form of prayer, or even a structure for formulating one’s own prayers.  It is learning to pray what is essentially the prayer of the church, and that means learning to become the church” (p115).
  • The Doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer indicates its liturgical usage from extremely early times.
  • The Lord’s Prayer is often recited at the end of the “pastoral prayer,” indicating its summary of all Christian prayer.
  • Liturgical traditions typically set it right before the reception of Communion, indicating its belonging to the baptized rather than the catechumens – it’s a foretaste of the Eucharist (“gives us this day our daily bread”) and its eschatological dimension is highlighted as well (“thy kingdom come”).

 Social context of the Catechism

The catechism is a flexible tool.

  • The subject matter is essentially fixed, but the types of questions it could address will differ widely depending on the socio-cultural context.
  • Example: the Asian context is dualistic world of ancient tradition and Westernized modernism.
    • How does the Trinity challenge Buddhist or Islamic views of the divine?
    • What’s the difference between the Holy Spirit and traditional Asian animistic beliefs?
    • How to biblical ethics comport with market consumerism?
    • Does the hierarchical structure of the Asian family match the biblical vision?
    • What are the implications of praying “thy kingdom” when you live under a totalitarian state?
    • How is the petition for daily bread to be made in a context of mass poverty?
  • Whatever the cultural context, the catechism needs to help the catechumen move from the old life in the world to the new life in Christ in the Church.


The Christian rites of initiation were not uniformly observed at first, but a basic shape did quickly emerge:

  • 1) Evangelization, 2) Catechesis, 3) Baptism/Confirmation, 4) Eucharist/Mystagogy
  • While the catechumenate is the process of weaning the Christian from the world, flesh, and devil, Baptism constitutes the final break with those three enemies of the soul.

Baptism signals a radical break from the past (repentance) and incorporation into the Church.

  • Deliverance from darkness (Colossians 1:13, Ephesians 5:8)
  • New corporate identity (1 Peter 2:9-10)
  • “The waters of Baptism are at once your grace and your mother” – Cyril of Jerusalem
  • Baptism isn’t just an individual’s event (removing sin), but has cosmic ramifications:
    • The Church claims that God’s has defeated the devil’s power over that person.
    • It’s another step in the coming Kingdom’s advance.
  • The new life in Baptismdoesn’t destroy individual identity.
    • The old self is buried, the new self emerges in new life.  “Our true personal identity is revealed in Christ” (p119).
    • This is why a new name is often received in Baptism.

Chrism is the anointing with oil, later to be known as Confirmation.

  • This more particularly signals the baptism of the Holy Spirit, though is not entirely separate from Baptism.
  • The gift of the Spirit is an essential component of the overall rite of initiation.
  • Baptism is like the formative function of the Spirit, uniting the individual to the Church, and Confirmation is like the nutritive function of the Spirit, refreshing the Christian’s spiritual life.

For the Church Fathers there was no separation between the spiritual reality and the sign!

  • “Baptism was not a ‘mere sign’ of a prior spiritual work effected by the Holy Spirit in the human heart; rather, baptism is effective because it is the Holy Spirit who effects the reality in and by the sign” (p120).
  • The liturgy is not a dead ritual but a vibrant reality energized by the Spirit.
  • Evangelicals have largely fallen to a “nominalist philosophy which sees signs as mere names or arbitrary pointers rather as than having any necessary connection to the things they signify…  Modern evangelicals find it much easier to grasp the Zwinglian “memorial” theory of the sacraments, since it does not require them to associate transcendence with anything so mundane as water, bread and wine.  For many today, it makes better sense if spiritual feelings are located within the subjective experience of the person, in the ‘feelings.’  If worship stimulates a particularly strong emotional upsurge, that is ‘real’!  it is rather ironic that the evangelicalism that claims to be the heir of the opponents of Protestant liberalism in the 19th century should find itself unwittingly concurring with the father of liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermaher, who understood the source of religion to be found precisely in human subjectivity: ‘the feeling of absolute dependence’” (p121).


Originally, the Eucharist was closed to the mere presence of catechumens, so mystagogy was an especially important process back then to help the newly baptized learn about the Eucharist in which they were now participating.  Cyril of Jerusalem’s five mystagogical sermons provide a helpful outline:

  1. What happens in Baptism – explaining the actions and words
  2. What Baptism means – explaining the theological implications of new life
  3. What Chrism means – explaining the theological implications of receiving the Spirit
  4. What the nature of the Eucharist is – explaining the reception of Christ’s body and blood
  5. The different parts of the liturgy – a step by step walk through

Underlying mystagogy is a theology of the liturgy.

  • Liturgy both initiates us into the mystery of the Gospel and embodies it.
  • This is largely accomplished through typology – metaphors that have a necessary connection between the type and antitype, Old Testament and New, earthly liturgy and heavenly.
  • “Representations and imitation are the chief means to appropriate the reality, but in the final analysis, real transformation of life comes from the redemptive work of Christ effected by the operation of the Spirit” (p123).
  • The modern church has two big things to learn from this.
    • The Bible ought to be treated as a unified whole – its typologies are valuable
    • Understanding the liturgy must be a necessary part of Christian education.
  • Mystagogy, like Catechizing, is more than education, it’s part of the life-long process of conversion.


Two big challenges stand before contemporary evangelicalism.

  1. Conversion needs to be treated (not just acknowledged) as a process, not a crisis event.
    1. Reducing conversion to a single decision point inevitably renders Baptism redundant.
    2. Catechesis better reflects the reality that conversion is a process of becoming.
    3. Baptism is a culmination of catechesis as marriage culminates the love between a man and a woman.

    2. The sacramental universe needs to be rediscovered in the liturgy.

    1. Reclaiming typology in biblical interpretation and in worship helps reveal the close connection between the physical and spiritual worlds.
    2. Many sacramental events like marriage are being eroded by society, so reclaiming the mystery is an uphill battle.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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2 Responses to Book Review: Liturgical Theology (6/8)

  1. Pingback: Catechesis & Worship | Leorningcnihtes boc

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Liturgical Theology – The Saint Aelfric Customary

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