The mass as drama . . .

The mass is a show. Of what? Of God’s great mystery reenacted, his dealing with men, women, and children) as we know it through Scripture and Tradition. It’s been a long, hard slog through the ages, starting with Abraham. Neither peep show nor lecture but something symbolic and much more .

Consider it as drama. Gordon Graham, Professor of Philosophy and the Arts at Princeton Theological Seminary, did in 2007 in an essay that explored liturgy, especially the Catholic Mass and its high-church Protestant counterparts “as a kind of drama.”

The Mass, he said, is “a dramatic enactment of the gospel in which all present participate in a variety of roles.”

A sort of choreography is in play, that is. He elaborates.

There is first the “Gathering of the People,” including “latecomers who join in the opening hymn” unknowingly in the role of “physically representing the church as it comes together for the purpose of worship.”

This is “particularly striking” he writes, where services begin with a hymn sung in procession., which “draws increasing numbers . . . as it progresses and, by means of singing together, forges them into ‘the people.'”

More commonly, all are in the pews already, turning and watching the celebrant and his train go by. Either way singing together and being “forged” into an ad hoc unity is operative.

Then, what is familiar indeed:

When the people are gathered, the celebrant leads them in penitential prayers [Kyrie], a quest for the state of mind and heart they require to hear the gospel proclamation in the right way.

Thus prepared, worshipers enter the drama’s first main act, the Liturgy of the Word.

An ordinary member of “the people” emerges from the crowd, as the
Hebrew prophets did, to declare to the assembled company the word of God as it is found in the Old Testament.

In response, the people, like the people of Israel, together sing (or say) one of the ancient psalms (or occasionally canticles) characteristic of Israel’s worship.


Then a second prophet emerges . . .  this time . . . of the “new” Israel, and there is a reading from the Epistles . . . The gradual hymn that follows allows for a change of pace.

As it ends, the Gospel is carried in procession from the altar to the people, signifying that the words of Jesus come down from God and thus are not simply those of a human prophet, however visionary.


This important difference is marked by the fact everyone reverently stands and faces the Gospel, having sat at ease during earlier readings. It is then the task of the preacher . . . to expand on the readings of the day, . . . so that the people properly understand the import of what they have heard in this first act of the drama.

When the word has been heard and [presumably] understood once again, the faithful are in a position to declare their faith, communally, in the Creed.

And having heard the word of God, striven to understand it afresh, and reaffirmed their faith, they are led by one of their own to enter into what is widely known as “the Prayer for the Church,” a prayer that places their hopes and requests before God in the name of Jesus.

Also familiar.

Together the faithful enact the cosmic drama of the world’s salvation. They are not the authors of this drama. Authorship lies with God. Yet, following the parallel with less awesome dramas, it is through their wholehearted participation that ordinary people realize this drama in human life.

That’s the idea.

We might say this: By participating in the drama of the liturgy, they are
the denizens of the new Israel. Like an actor in a part, they are both themselves and Christian disciples, and it is only by giving themselves wholeheartedly to the parts they are assigned that they make that discipleship a reality.

Beautiful. It’s the ideal.

How well it all done is an issue, of course. The author is philosophizing, of which I approve, except it reminds me of the old story of the two ladies, matrimonial veterans, walking out after mass where the young priest had preached about the joys of married life.

One noted what a lovely sermon it was. The other agreed, adding, “I wish I knew as little about marriage as that young man.”

Do we wish sometimes that we knew as little about mass as that philosopher?

1 Comment

  1. Jim Bowman says:

    Reblogged this on Blithe Spirit and commented:

    Very good on describing the ideal . . .


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