The Three Scrutinies

The Three Scrutinies

by the Rev. Rod McAulay, retired priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California

The three “scrutinies” are not widely known or practiced today, but they are a piece of our Christian liturgical heritage. On the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent catechumens preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil were brought forward after the reading of the Gospel to be examined. Typically they would recite from memory one of the Creeds or the Lord’s Prayer or some other fundamental expression of our Faith. It is a vestige of a cycle of the expansion and diminution of traditions connected with the season of Lent.

As the early church grew in appreciating the centrality of the Passion story to our Faith - that in Jesus’ death and resurrection there was and is a consummation of a new Covenant between mortal and transcendent life - the preparation for the celebration of that key truth expanded both in detail and in duration. By the third century what we now call Lent had expanded from a three-day fast to a three week series of special liturgies and pilgrimages: in Jerusalem to various holy sites and in Rome to different churches around the city. Lent subsequently grew to six weeks and then by the sixth century four more days were added, pushing the start of the season from a Sunday to the preceding Wednesday (Ash Wednesday) so that there would be forty fasting days not counting the Sundays preceding Easter. And, as if this were not sufficient time to ramp up to Eater, the lead-in to Lent was expanded with the Quinquagesima, Sexagesima and Septuagesima Sundays: a time to prepare for a time to prepare.

The disciplines and traditions around Lent also expanded, especially in monastic communities. An abbot John from St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mt. Sanai composed a collection of mystical readings known as the Ladder which is still Lenten mealtime reading in monastic communities. Over the centuries other Lenten practices sprung up throughout the Christian world many centering on acts of penitence, both public and private.

As the mindfulness and theatrics associated with Lent have abated in modern times there have been efforts to recapture the discipline of preparation for Easter. The defense of resuming some of our ancient practices has been that in submitting ourselves to serious and difficult preparation, we can more truly appreciate the immensity and wonder of the gift that God has presented. Conversely, when we make the act of entry into the community of the faithful too simple and light, it is then held in a casual and often irreverent manner. People drift in and out of church as their flickering moods move them.

There is a tension between the libertarian exuberance of our Western egos and the grace and humility that come from subordinating ourselves to the disciplines and dignity of the greater faith community. On the one hand we are eager for our churches to appear hospitable: no one is expected to put on special clothing, the music is jolly and light, and the sacraments are available to all. On the other hand, we are hopefully being invited into a culture that, while welcoming, carries expectations that we will join in a pilgrimage involving study, spiritual growth and emotional maturing. We will seek God in subordinating ourselves to God’s Word, letting God’s light refract through our beings and learning to discern the divine in the beauty of creation and the love of neighbor. This life requires humility and discipline, sacrifice and surrender.

During Lent, catechumens are preparing for their baptism, but all of us are preparing for Easter. Are you ready for the “scrutinies”? It is the season.

Wishing you all a blessed Lent.


3 comments (Add your own)

1. Jerry Pare' wrote:
Great article, Rod! Yes, those preparing for baptism and confirmation during Easter can and do lead all of us through Lent and into the Easter celebration of new life. Incorporating infant baptisms into our Sunday liturgies throughout the year has raised our awareness and appreciation of our baptismal covenant. So to, as we baptize more and more adults (the growth of secularism means fewer people are baptized as infants), our appreciation of Lent as a journey to new life in Christ grows.

The catechumenate allows us to visit some of the tensions with which we struggle in our existence in the world but not of the world. For example, do we use terms like "scrutiny" which seems to connote that Life in Christ is a matter of taking an exam? What about the practice of dismissing catechumens after the sermon because they are not yet baptized and thus, in the Tradition, not yet invited to the Table? How do we reconcile this with the growing practice of welcoming all to communion in the name of Judeo-Christian hospitality? Good matters upon which to reflect as we proceed through Lent.

Tue, March 25, 2014 @ 3:54 PM

2. Laura Darling wrote:
I'd never heard of the "three scrutinies"! Very interesting.

Wed, March 26, 2014 @ 6:41 AM

3. Jerry Pare&#39 wrote:
Laura et. al,
Read the BOS, "Concerning the Catechumenate" as well as the material following on pastoral rites for Confirmation and Reaffirmation of Faith (BOS pp 117-146). Mention of the scrutinizes is on p 128. The BOS refers to "blessings." The Roman Catholic "Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults" (RCIA) refers to Scrutunies , which more faithfully reflects the early church terminology.

For much more I refer you to and invite you to their annual conference this August in Vancouver, BC. See you there!?!

Wed, March 26, 2014 @ 10:42 AM

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