Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Liturgy & Theatre

The very last thing our liturgy needs, you might think, is a more theatrical sensibility. To those of us who have been treated to the occasional crash-and-burn bad liturgy (complete with 'liturgical dancers' lurching up the aisles in leotards which are an occasion of sin against charity if not modesty) the idea of 'liturgical theatre' brings up instant horror.

And yet, one of the major problems with the weekend tragedians and comedians on the parish liturgy committee is actually a lack of familiarity with dramatic theory. You see, once upon a time the Catholic Mass was admired by dramatic theorists -- not so much because the spectacle of the high mass, but because the rubrics of the mass were such a good example of action mirroring word and meaning.

The key to creating good drama is to craft a sight and sound experience that conveys the essential meaning of the script. When a director sits down to score out a script, he doesn't just think, "What would this look like in real life," but also (and to a great extent, instead) "What actions will convey to the audience what is going on." On stage, important action is usually moved to a focal point, if not the center of the stage, then an area on which the audience's attention is focused via set and lighting design. A character who is exerting greater power within a scene is often given blocking that puts him above the person he exerts power over. If one character is seated while the other stands leaning over him, the image conveys that the person standing is in power. Alternatively, if one character sits in a chair looking relaxed while the other stands stiffly or nervously before him we instinctively know it is the sitting person who is in power. If a character turns her back on another, we know that she is in some sense blocking him or shutting him out. Perhaps she is angry with him, perhaps she is hiding her thoughts and emotions from him.

Director's don't simply make these things up, rather, they tap into the vocabulary of behaviors and gestures that have common meaning for us as a culture. We use these gestures and movements in life every day. The craft of the director is to understand the meaning of gestures that most of us use without even thinking, and to choose actions for his actors which will use this gesture language to convey the script more clearly to the audience.

Good liturgy also uses the language of gesture to convey meaning. We kneel during the consecration because kneeling conveys reverence. We stand while listening to the Gospel because standing is also a sign of respect and attention. (Ask any drill sergeant if he'd get a good reaction making people sit at attention.) We bow before receiving the Eucharist as a sign of reverence. The use of incense, gold vessels and formal robes are all ancient signs of reverence.

Other things, however simply do not draw from our cultural vocabulary of meaning. Liturgical dancers have no meaning in our culture. Sure, some ancient kings may have had dancing girls -- but the meaning there was "this king is so important he could have any one of these beautiful women." Christ isn't that kind of king. (And that kind of king wouldn't want the average liturgical dancer.)

Other symbols that liturgists suggest convey messages, but not messages that mean anything relevant to the mass. Thus, having a group of children sing and 'do motions' for the congregation as 'a meditation' does not cause anyone to meditate. It causes people to think 'how cute' and wish they could reach for their video cameras so they could show Grandma.

Back when we lived in LA Archdiocese, one directive that came out asked that everyone remain standing both before and after receiving communion and then sit down all at once 'to emphasize that we all sit down together at the table of God.' Well, that may have sounded good in a discussion group somewhere, but having everyone stand during the distribution of communion doesn't convey at any deep level 'we're united'. Indeed, what it mostly seemed to convey to people was 'we're waiting', and so they'd chat amongst themselves much more than when kneeling. (This particular innovation died, at least at our parish, within weeks.)

Other things are just plain hard. The sign of peace, for instance. I'm not necessarily one of those people who hates the sign of peace. (It gives my toddlers something they're capable of participating in -- that's a plus right there.) But I think one of the reasons it has had problems in our culture is that there is no standard 'peace be with you' gesture in our culture. Shaking hands says "hi there" or "you've got a deal" or "what buddies we are" but it doesn't say "peace be with you". We're not a culture that gives peace. In some cultures, a kiss on each cheek might convey that. In others, clasping both arms or bowing might convey such a message. But since it's not a sentiment we have a gesture for, the sign of peace often degenerates into a 'hi ya' moment.

Our parish is usually pretty good at avoiding liturgical miss-steps, but there was a mild example of clumsy symbolism tonight. Someone had got the idea of putting the church into Good Friday mode before the Holy Thursday mass. So when we came in the tabernacle was open, the statues were draped in red, the lights were off, etc. When the procession entered, the crucifix the servers carried was also shrouded. Now, I'm sure someone was thinking, "This is such powerful symbolism and says so much on Good Friday, it'll give a great Lenten feel to Holy Thursday if we do the same thing." (Similar thinking most go into taking away the holy water for all of lent rather than just Good Friday and Holy Saturday.)

But no one had thought through what a mixed symbolic message you'd be sending by shrouding Christ during the celebration of the institution of the Eucharist. And leading a Eucharistic procession out of the church at the end of mass while carrying a crucifix with the corpus hidden. If Jesus is right there in the Eucharist, why use all the symbolism that's meant to convey that he's not there?

UPDATE: Fr. Fox points out in the comments (and also mentions in a post on his own blog) that the rubrics in the Sacramentary for Holy Thursday mention the tabernacle being completely empty. I'd never seen this done before, so I assumed it was an innovation, but live-and-learn.

I'm still think shrouding all the statues and crucifixes for Holy Thursday was a slightly misplaced idea, but as we've just seen I'm not an expert. :-) However, I'll have a better explanation at today's 3pm service when my 3-year-old daughter will doubtless ask again: "Why is Jesus hiding under a blanket." Because now it's accurate to say, "We hide Jesus today to remind us that after he died Jesus was hidden in the tomb for three days before he rose from the dead."

1 comment:

Father Martin Fox said...

Many excellent points!

One of the points I make in this regard is that we presume too much if we think we comprehend the meaning of the liturgy. We certainly get a lot of its meaning; but we don't fully penetrate it. Indeed, we don't know how well we penetrate it, precisely because we are in the realm of mystery -- which is not something we don't understand at all, but something whose meaning we never exhaust.

Thus, we do better to remain very humble before the liturgy, taking it as-is, not with strict rigor, as if we can make no adaptations or accommodations (the rubrics are full of invitations and permissions for such things, so we needn't invent them), but with the attitude that this is far bigger than we are; we receive it, we are not its masters.

With all that, there is one, fine point I would note, about what you described in your parish for Holy Thursday: it is correct to have the tabernacle "completely empty before the celebration." You'll find that in the sacramentary for Holy Thursday.