(This is Neil.) Is it rational to celebrate the Liturgy? Most of us, I think, would answer positively, flinching from the suggestion that liturgical action is irrational. But what sort of rationality would this be?
The Anglican priest and theologian Gordon Graham explored this question in Theology Today earlier this year. Most philosophers, he says, suggest that an action is rational if there are instrumental or intrinsic reasons for it. Instrumental reasons confer rationality on an action by showing that it is a good means to a given end – good here usually meaning efficient. An action can be intrinsically rational if it is rational in and of itself, without being the means to an end. It is rational, we would say, to pursue friendship, love, and wisdom without having a specific end in mind.
It is instrumentally rational to celebrate the Eucharist? The danger of suggesting that we celebrate the Eucharist to bring about a desired end is that we leave no room for God, who becomes, as Professor Graham says, “the supplier of spiritual medicine.” He goes on to say, “Not only do we thereby infringe God’s sovereignty, but we reduce what ought to be an essentially personal relation to a purely mechanical one.” In short, we reduce our celebration to “magic.” I think that we can actually recognize when this happens – when a liturgy becomes manipulative or coldly ritualistic.
Is it intrinsically rational, then, to celebrate the Eucharist? In other words, is it fitting to celebrate the Eucharist? This might initially seem to be a more promising idea. After all, at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, when the congregation says, “It is right to give [God] thanks and praise,” we might hear “It is fitting to give him thanks and praise.” But there is a serious problem with suggesting that the Eucharist is intrinsically rational. The obvious question is: For whom is the Eucharist intrinsically valuable? The answer can only be, “For us.” The Eucharist can be therapeutic for us, psychologically beneficial, an introduction to contemplation. But if we are content to say, “It is fitting that human beings celebrate the Liturgy for human reasons,” we will never be able to speak of “an action that reaches beyond the human.” We will not be able to use the language of sacrifice.
So is liturgical action irrational?
This can’t be right, either. We can engage in critical scrutiny of the celebration of the Liturgy. If someone – Protestant or Catholic – were to suggest celebrating Holy Communion without the words of institution (leaving the Liturgy of Addai and Mari aside here), we would not have to rely on appeals to personal preference, majority rule, or authority to convince him or her otherwise. There is something rational here.
Gordon Graham suggests that we can see that the Liturgy is rational if we consider it to be “enactment.” If we consider an actor on the stage, we can imagine that he might really move an audience or derive great personal satisfaction from acting. But this wouldn’t necessarily be relevant to a reviewer. The audience might be stupid and delight in overacting. And one can get a real sense of accomplishment from acting poorly. But the reviewer can still assess the performance rationally by considering whether the actor brought the character to life. The reviewer can judge “enactment.” Did we get a sense of the character? Or was the actor or actress’ personality a constant distraction? Was he or she obviously acting?
How is the character brought to life? How does enactment take place? Obviously, the actor or actress is very important in realizing the character. Graham notes the language that we commonly use: “Anthony Hopkins is Hannibal Lecter.” But the character is really the invention of the playwright or screenwriter (or the original author). Note the language in the following sentence about the recently released “I Am Legend,” concerning Richard Matheson: “Perhaps the greatest compliment to [Will] Smith came from the man who first created the character of Robert Neville.” (My emphasis; examples could be multiplied.) There is no ontological identification between the actor and the character. The character comes from elsewhere.
Let’s now consider the basic pattern of the ordinary of the Mass – Kyrie, Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. Professor Graham suggests that we think of all of this as a “dramatic enactment of the gospel in which all present participate in a variety of roles.” At the initial gathering, the procession and (usually) the hymn, forges those individuals present into “the people,” conscious of their baptism and prepared to hear the gospel proclamation. One person emerges from the people to declare to the assembly – as the prophets did to Israel – the word of God as it is found in the Old Testament. The assembly responds with the psalms characteristic of Israel’s worship. Then another person emerges as a prophet of the “new” Israel to read to the people from the Epistles (or perhaps Acts).
Then the Gospel is carried down from the altar to the people, for the words of Jesus come down from God. Everyone stands. Then a sermon is heard so that the people can fully enter into the movement of the Spirit that inspired the Scriptures and helped give birth to Christ himself. After this, the people are ready to declare their shared faith – together – in the Creed. Then, they are also able to bring their hopes and requests before God in the “Prayer for the Church.”
The second act begins: the Liturgy of the Sacrament. Ordinary bread and wine are brought forth. The celebrant asks the people to lift up their hearts, so that they can sing an ancient hymn of praise, and affirm a desire to be among the worshipping community (the Benedictus). “There follows the Prayer of Consecration by means of which God transforms the ordinary gifts of bread and wine to the extraordinary gift of the sacrament. In some places a bell rings to signify that in a special, mystical way, God himself has entered the sanctuary and waits for his people.” The people are struck by the “enormous gulf between God and man and by the fact that through the grace of the sacrament it can nevertheless be bridged.” Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi …
Obviously, there is more. The people are sent back into the world. But one gets the idea. What does this mean? What is the rationality here?
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. 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 the discipleship a reality.\
Graham also suggests that thinking about liturgy as drama, as enactment, means that we can grasp its timeless and temporal nature. We can speak about a major dramatic work as timeless – will there be a time when Shakespeare is not performed? – and particular performances as rooted in particular times and places. The most recent play that I’ve seen was a performance of The Taming of the Shrew which very much reflected (and critiqued) our own world of glittering surfaces and advertising.
Well, what do you think of this? Does the rationality of liturgy conferred not by intrinsic or instrumental rationality, but by enactment? I am still considering the idea (we can also think here of Kazantzakis’ The Greek Passion). We would have to say that, in the case of the Liturgy, the actor eventually realizes that the “role” is more truly himself than what he had once taken to be his “usual” self …