The Holy Spirit: The Drama of Worship in the Holy Spirit

Catholic worship, like Jewish worship before it, is deeply liturgical.  Liturgy means “the work of the people” and is the great communal and ritual act of self-offering to God whereby the People of God enter, by God’s own invitation, into the mystery of Jesus’ own self-offering to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit in the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

The mention of liturgy and ritual baffles many people for whom “religion” and “spirituality” are polar opposites.  According to this misapprehension, things like ritual acts and scripted prayers are thought to be constraining and cold while free-form prayer is thought to be synonymous with the freedom and mystical warmth of the Spirit. 

But in fact a mere free-form approach to anything—including spirituality—rarely results in any real fruit.  Yes, there are people who can do spontaneous improv comedy.  What lies behind that is years of training.  Yes, there are musicians who can do long jazz riffs without sheet music in front of them.  What lies behind that is years of practice.  Yes, there are chefs who can create dazzling meals off the top of their heads—after years of culinary school.  Yes, there brilliant writers who can crank out fascinating novels, screenplays, poems and essays.  They learned to do it from years of reading, study, and practice. In short, we learn to be free by submitting ourselves to the humility of discipline under a Master.  When it comes to worship, our Master is Jesus and the way we learn to worship is by surrendering to the work of his Spirit in the liturgy.  It is not unlike the way an actor learns his craft.  And indeed, liturgy and theatre have a great deal in common.

Consider: You enter a ritual space and take your seat in the midst of an audience. At the front (or perhaps in the middle) of the hall you are in (often a vast and airy hall, sometimes a small and intimate one) is another part of the ritual space that is marked off from the space you and your fellow audience members occupy. In that ritual space are various pieces of furniture and props for use during the public act that is about to occur.

Music sounds. A chorus and a cast of ritually costumed figures appears and begins to go through a set of carefully scripted words and physical actions. There is a place in the script for audience involvement, with call and response between the figures in the ritual space and the audience. Various cast members recite words of poetry and prose and sometimes burst into song.

One player in particular portrays, in a stylized form, the central Hero in the drama which tells the tale of a conflict in which that Hero passes through all the trials of life with which we ourselves are familiar: poverty, hunger, friendship, love, betrayal, suffering and death—and comes at last to a glorious and moving triumph.  It is a tale in which, after a struggle and a grand act of self-sacrifice, the Hero saves his friends from the powers of evil, the humble are exalted, the wicked get their comeuppance or are themselves so changed by the conflict that they are reconciled with the Hero in friendship and love. 

In the end, the Hero receives his reward and the acclaim of great and small.  Through participation in this drama, all involved have offered to them a chance at catharsis from the ills, spiritual and physical, which burden them as human beings. The audience members are made participants in mysterious realities revealed in and through words that are made flesh before their eyes and they have a sense of contact with something transcendent. At the conclusion, there is an exeunt omnes and the stylized ritual concludes.

So here’s a pop quiz: are you at Mass or at a production of a play by Sophocles?

Greeks developed theatre out of their religious observances. The word “tragedy” derives from the Greek for “goat song”.  Greek drama, like so much Greek art and thought, was in large part concerned with wrestling over the relationship of man and the gods. So was Jewish liturgy.  Indeed, the very name “Israel” means “He who wrestles with God.” Greek theatre arose in order to portray various tales from Greek mythology with humans dressed in masks and costumes. 

Old Testament Judaism never developed a drama, probably in part because of the prohibition against images found in the second commandment.  Instead, it developed a liturgy in which the saving action of God in the life of the nation was rehearsed and remembered by being acted out liturgically instead of dramatically. 

Such liturgy is not merely about recalling, but about making present, the past.  So, for example, at every Passover Seder–in which Israel’s escape from Egypt to the Promised Land is recalled–there is a ritual series of questions and answers beginning with “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Indeed, the dialogue in the Passover Haggadah is recognizably similar to what dramatists would call a script.  So it is no accident that “script” and “scripture” are related words.  But in the liturgical tradition of Judaism the idea is more than merely reciting lines about something that happened long ago.  The meal being eaten, right now in the present, becomes a participation in the very first Passover celebrated on the eve of the Exodus.  It is entering into the event itself: in the Passover liturgy it is we (not merely our ancestors) who were enslaved in Egypt; it is we—right now—who are saved by God and brought out of bondage to the Promised Land; it is we—right now—who are in a covenant of sacred kinship with the God of our fathers. 

The same thing applies during the drama of the Divine Liturgy.  It recalls, but also makes present, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And it does so not merely in words, but physically—incarnationally—in the Eucharist consecrated by a priest who dresses up in costume in order to act (there’s that word again) as an alter Christus, another Christ.  And the Eucharist he consecrates is, supremely, the making present of the entire drama of the Passion since the Eucharist is not merely a symbol, but Jesus Christ himself, fully and really present in his incarnate, risen, and glorified body, blood, soul, and divinity.

In short, it is Jesus, not the priest, leading us all in the worship of his Father.

In our liturgical worship, the Great Story of Jesus is enfleshed and made present for us via all five of our senses.  We see the signs and symbols in the architecture of the church and the gestures of the liturgy; we hear the words of Scripture and the music of psalms and hymns; we smell the incense and the oils; we feel the imposition of hands in anointing or the flow of water in Baptism; we taste the food of the Eucharist under the appearance of bread and wine. More than this, we enter into the Great Story as living participants.  We become the saints saying, “It is right and just” to praise God; we become the crowd hailing Jesus with the words “Hosanna in the highest!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”; during the Passion liturgy on Palm Sunday, we become part of the mob saying “Away with him!  Give us Barabbas!”;  we become the Centurion saying, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” and the leper saying “Only say the word and I shall be healed.”  In praying the Lord’s Prayer, we stand in the place of the Son of God himself and address God as our Father.  And in consuming the Body of Christ we become the Body of Christ.


One Response

Leave a Reply

Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email