Before the Forty Days of Purpose, there was Great Lent.
Contrary to conventional wisdom in much of Western Christiandom, the early church was not overly “seeker sensitive.” Now, the early Christians were very seeker sensitive, always seeking to give an answer for the hope that was in them, but the churches, not so much. Church, in my limited understanding, never seemed to be intended to be solely an evangelistic outreach.
Rather, it existed to serve as an “ark” for the believer, a place of safety. The actual language of the church buildings indicate this—we gather not in a sanctuary, but rather in the “nave”, a word taken from nautical language. You came to church to worship God, and to be healed. But you came on God’s terms, not yours. It is the hospital where we go to be made well, and we submit to the treatments prescribed therein.
Every Sunday I am reminded of this reality, when just prior to reciting the Nicene Creed, the priest intones “The doors, the doors.” Historically, that’s the point in the service when the catechumens would leave. Because the Church taught that the bread and wine was mystically transformed into the Body and Blood of her Savior, rumors of cannibalism abounded, and gave apparent justification for persecution. So spies would sneak into services, in hopes of catching the Christians in the “act.” The Eucharist, and actually even being in the nave for Communion, was reserved for those who had submitted their lives to Christ and entered His Church.
It was so much more than walking an aisle, reading a tract, or praying a prayer. And historically in part, the spring run-up to Pascha was the time for this process to occur. It was a serious matter, and those converting spent much time in prayerful study and other disciplines. There’s a much better post about this topic over at Touchstone Magazine’s “Mere Comments” blog, but I’m going to try to sum up, and touch on a bit of my own experience as I entered the Church.
In the Didache, an early Church devotional text, those preparing for Baptism were urged to fast prior to the sacrament, which was often administered on Holy Saturday, prior to Pascha (Easter). But those that did the Baptism were also urged to fast. It was a process the community entered in together.
I was chrismated on Holy Saturday in 2004—my forehead, hands, and feet anointed with oil, as I received the seal of the Holy Spirit. My godmother was there, as were members of the congregation. I had been specifically prayed for during each Sunday service as I approached my chrismation. And while I was grateful that, in the months prior to my chrismation, the Church no longer asks catechumens to leave the service, I was even more grateful, afterward, that it was still something I was asked to take seriously, asked to pray about, study, and physically submit to.
We have a number of people preparing to join the Holy Orthodox Church in about a month, on another Holy Saturday. When Fr. Isaac prays for them during the service, I get chills, just like I do when he says “The doors, the doors.” I can’t wait for them to partake of the Divine and Life-Giving Mysteries. I can’t wait to continue together with them along this journey home.
There is often talk in much of Western Christianity of this need to be relevant, to be seeker sensitive, to give Joe and Jane American a reason to come through the doors each Sunday (or Saturday or whenever). If salvation, complete and total healing of soul, and eternal life is not enough of a reason to decide to come, I really don’t know what else it would take.