As a Catholic, i was one of the last generation of First Communicants to have a Tridentine Missal. It had a white shiny cover like mother-of-pearl, and 1,465 flimsy pages. The Ordinary of the Mass was printed in two columns, Latin on the left and English on the right. At last I had the key to this mysterious language and I followed it avidly. As soon as the celebrant began the 'Mass of the Catechumens', I was following the English translation: 'I will go in unto the altar of God'. To which the altar server replied, 'Unto God, who gives joy to my youth.'
I found this exchange puzzling. The God of my youth had little to do with joy and everything to do with judgement and penance. The Church of my youth was a house of prayer, of awe and majesty, but never of celebration. This was a Church of 'solemnities' rather than of 'feast days'.The liturgy was at its richest and most dramatic in the fasting seasons of Lent and Advent. There were no Christmas trees in our churches then, or harvest baskets, or colourful montages by First Communion and Confirmation classes. The brightest events seemed to be the Marian feasts – the crowning of the Queen of the May and the May processions.
It was in the great requiem Masses and in the pageantry of Holy Week that the Church seemed to come into its own. I can still hear the subdued thunder of the organ, the terrifying rhythms of the Dies Irae, the militant Faith of our Fathers, the haunting Tenebrae - 'service of the shadows'. I can still see the eerie humped shapes of the statues shrouded in the colours of mourning in Holy Week, the gaping tabernacle on Good Friday. I can smell the air, heavy with incense in the nave, close and stifling in the cramped confessional. The church was a holy place, majestic, awe-inspiring, a sombre theatre of unending war against the forces of darkness. Every Sunday, I left the church with the chilling lines of the last prayer of the Mass, the prayer to St Michael the Archangel, ringing in my ears: '…do thou, prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God thrust down to hell Satan and all wicked spirits, who wander through the world for the ruin of souls”. Church penitential, Church militant, Church triumphant – but never Church jubilant.
Then came Pope John XXIII and Aggiornamento; Pope Paul VI and the new rite in the vernacular. I entered enthusiastically into the era of the Folk Mass, and years later regretted the passing of ritual and ceremony that evoked such a sense of God’s mystery and majesty. Throughout all that time, I never quite overcame the early sense of not quite belonging in a church. Churches, for me, were a place where I was a hushed spectator rather than an enthusiastic participant - a place in which to consider one’s shortcomings rather than be embraced in God’s love; high on drama, it was low on spiritual energy.
Then, on that second Sunday in Lent some years ago, two sentences from the Gospel - the same Gospel that was read this morning - struck me with considerable force.
The first was Peter's exultant cry on seeing the radiant, transfigured Christ on Mount Tabor: 'Master', he cried, 'it is wonderful for us to be here!' The second sentence was spoken by the voice from the cloud, saying: 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'
This was God, loving himself in Christ. St Paul memorably asked the Corinthians, '...do you not realise that Christ lives in you?' According to Paul, God reveals Christ to us from within us. The transfigured Jesus is within me. Well might I cry, 'Lord, it is wonderful for me to be here!'
And well might I listen to God saying to me, 'Your are my beloved daughter; I am very pleased with you'.
It struck me, that Lenten Sunday three years ago, that this conviction was as good as anywhere and any time to begin loving my neighbour as myself.
Avove: painting of The Transfiguration by Cornelis Monsma, a Dutch-Frisian expressionist artist living in New Zealand.