I entered the Church post Vatican II during the “Jesus is our friend” era of the 80s. Religion classes in Canadian schools focused on anthropological questions like what footwear was popular in biblical times, and our spiritual life was addressed by memorizing the Lord’s Prayer. The first has been useful when it comes to the annual Passion Play; the latter has stood me in good stead every day since my conversion. As a method of religious formation, however, this curriculum was seriously deficient in encouraging a relationship with God, or fostering a love for the rich beauty of our faith.
Unfortunately the parishes I attended after that, though full of wonderful people and shepherded by sincere priests, did not inspire me to delve any further into the depths of Catholicism. The buildings were rather bland, the music often trite, and the homilies made us feel good rather than challenge us to strive for holiness. Don’t get me wrong: I loved being Catholic and enjoyed going to Mass on Sunday. For a long time I didn’t even realize I was missing out on the real meat of the faith, that I was still subsisting on milk and bread.
Later on as a young adult, I was fortunate to find a parish that offered instruction and formation. There, I went on to learn about salvation history, the sacraments, doctrine, doctors of the church, lives of the saints, liturgy, tradition, and so on. A whole new world was opened to me in which I discovered that Catholicism is vibrant, rich, and relevant.
And yet. Though I’ve grown in knowledge and spiritual maturity, I don’t think I ever entirely let go of the notion of ‘Jesus: my brother, my friend’ fostered by what I call Wind Tunnel Jesus, or Surfer Dude Jesus. You know those pictures of Jesus from the 70s and 80s, either as the Risen Christ with arms outstretched and hair blown back, or as a gentle and loving bearded friendly man done in pastels? That man was our friend, our brother -- a kinder and gentler version of Mr. Smith who teaches kindergarten and also has a beard. Those seeds of “Jesus: just like you and me” were planted deep. The notion of a teaching so radical it changed the world and a sacrifice so great it saved the world was hard to accept as absolute truth.
Much of the language of the Mass further encouraged me to acknowledge the humanity of Jesus over His divinity. The prayers were littered with images of friendship and brotherhood. Revised hymns celebrated the people in the pews rather than the great majesty of God.
Then, on the Sunday of Epiphany, came the words of Eucharistic Prayer I, “... when supper was ended, He took this precious chalice in His holy and venerable hands...” There, in my pew, I had one of those surreal movie moments where my vision telescoped and I’m sure I even felt the earth jolt under my feet. In plain English, two words elevated my friend the wind surfing Jesus, to a sacred realm, because He lifted the chalice in His holy and venerable hands.
What I knew in my mind -- that the Mass makes present the great sacrificial offering of Jesus Christ, Son of God – became present to me in that moment. As Father duplicated the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper and spoke the words of consecration, I could feel their truth, the weight of their significance. Holy and venerable.
The good intentions of making elements of our faith accessible are now being tempered with restoring glory, majesty, and mystery into the language of the liturgy. I hope to see the same initiative happen in the vocabularies of church architecture, sacred art, hymns, and (especially) RCIA programs.
Words are powerful.