“Is it rational to celebrate Communion?”: Liturgy as Drama

(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?

Graham writes:

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 …


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Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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14 Responses to “Is it rational to celebrate Communion?”: Liturgy as Drama

  1. Liam says:

    A couple of points:

    1. A loving response to “Do this in memory of Me” (adumbrated by the Last Discourse (among others)), is sufficient to establish rationality. Or would you consider that trans-rational (which to me would seem to impoverish the sense of rationality)?

    2. “Enactment” seems an impoverished word for this. “Representment” is much richer. “Zikkaron” perhaps richer yet. The hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures is key here. Christ, God and Man, abides at the Father’s right hand in Heaven “in” (human language is poor for this) an Eternal Now, and thus what “happened” to him within time and space also is “in” that Eternal Now. Et cet.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks, as always, for writing. I will have to respond much too quickly. But:

    1. The difficulty with stating that “a loving response … is sufficient to establish rationality” is, I think, twofold:

    A. We can think of many clearly irrational beliefs that can evoke a “loving response.”

    B. The establishment of rationality through the evocation of a particular sort of response seems to be a use of instrumental rationality. As my post discussed, this is problematic.

    I don’t want to say that a “loving response” is unimportant, but it has to be a part of a larger account of the rationality of the liturgy.

    2. “Enactment” does seem to be an impoverished word for liturgical anamnesis. I have given a fuller account elsewhere. But, remember, the question is whether celebrating communion is “rational”? If it is “rational,” it should be intelligible to (potentially) all people. And, so, I use a philosophical term, not a theological one in my answer.

    The value of a philosophical term, however impoverished, is clear when the goal is finding some common ground in dialogue with non-Christians and non-liturgical Christians who, in this case, might still grasp how drama works.



  3. Liam says:


    The irrationality of a belief (I would say relationship, not merely belief – I relate to God as a Person, not as an Idea) does not negate the rationality of a loving response at all.

    Else you join the notion that altruism as we normally understand it does not exist, that all rational explanations are in some way necessarily materialist. And I cannot think you mean to do that. But that would seem to be the almost inevitable implication of premising the rationality of a response on the rationality of the belief/relationaship that prompts it.

    I don’t see where “enactment” helps anything. It’s just a weak word, which it seems is deliberately drained of some truth and which therefore would not seem to be God’s way.

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Sorry, I have to reply quickly and another response (if desired) might take a couple days.

    1. We are not discussing the rationality of a “loving response.” We are discussing the rationality of a previous action – here, the celebration of Holy Communion. Once more, the capacity to evoke a loving response does not confer rationality on the preceding action. Otherwise, it would be “rational” to make a pilgrimage to the site of a very dubious Marian apparition because some people’s lives have been changed by doing so, etc.

    Furthermore, suggesting that the capacity to evoke a loving response confers rationality on an action comes dangerously close to instrumental rationality.

    2. “Enactment” is weaker than some more properly theological terms, not because it is “drained of some truth,” but because it is philosophical. But it is therefore intelligible to people who do not share certain theological presuppositions and it helpfully relates liturgical action to other sorts of actions. Thus, I think, it is the right term for the particular question that I am asking here. “Enactment” can help certain people grasp that liturgical action is not something esoteric and free from critical scrutiny.



  5. Liam says:

    I guess we’re talking past each other. The celebration of the liturgy IS the loving response to the invitation of the Lord.

    An insane person can ask someone to love him. Loving him in response to that request can be quite rational. The rationality of the response is not premised on the rationality of the prompt. They are logically distinct, if not independent in the fullest sense.

    Unless you mean “rational” in some reified technical sense that I am missing from your descriptions of the word. I simply mean the use of reason. Reason has many forms: logical, analogical, metaphorical, deductive, inductive, personalist and materialist, et cet. I understand the term expansively, as have Christians generally over the centuries – which is not surprising given the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

    If we’re dealing with a sense of “rational” that is more or less limited to materialist conceptions of the world, then it’s not worth very much as a word.

  6. Dear Liam:

    I believe that Neil has defined rationality as either instrumental or intrinsic and has defined the former as doing something to achieve another end, and the latter as doing something for its own sake. He has asked whether our worship is instrumentally rational (i.e., are we doing it for some other reason), or is it intrinsically rational (i.e., is it rational in and of itself. Do please stop trying to confuse the issue which Neil is attempting to raise.

    Dear Neil:

    I would posit that we worship for both reasons. Aristotle has long ago pointed out that we either do things for the sake of other things, or for their own sake. We wage war in order (hopefully) to obtain peace. We work in order to obtain leisure. But he has also said that we do certain things for their own sake, primarily matters of contemplation. Of these, A. said that the chief matters of contemplation are mathematics, music, and divine worship. By that standard, then, our service of the Divine Liturgy would be intrinsically rational.

    On the other hand, I think that Liam has hit the nail, if not on the head, at least hard enough to make the point. I would argue that to be rational is to be in obedience to the Divine Logos, Reason Himself, who is the Word made Flesh. One of the things that He said is: “If you love me, you will keep My commandments.” And one of His commandments, as Liam has pointed out, is “Do this in memory of me.” Thus, I would argue that our worship in the Divine Liturgy is also instrumentally rational: we do it because the Divine Reason Himself has told us to.

    But I think that you also have raised, with Gordon Graham, a very important point. While I, like Liam, am dissatisfied with the word enactment, I am much more satisfied with the word anamnesis, particularly since that is the word used in Scripture which Liam had quoted: τουτο ποιειτε εις την εμην αναμνησιν.

    It is also important to realize that anamnesis is not simply the word “memory” or “memorial”, but has resonance with the word “enactment” or “realization”. When the Greek Dramatists, who were conducting divine worship of their own in their dramas, were presenting their themes, they were performing an anamnesis, or an actualization, of the myths which they valued.

    Finally, it is important to see that the Divine Liturgy, particularly in the form given us by Ss. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, is a divine drama which has its roots in Greek Drama, from the use of three main characters (Priest, Deacon and Reader), two choirs who sing antiphonally, and the people who both listen and participate, down to the skene, or stage itself, with its three doors, which we now call the iconostasis with its Royal Doors.

    In short, Liam and Neil, you are both right, although not in the ways which you have apparently asserted.

  7. By the bye, sorry about the unintentional use of italicization after the word skene.

    And a happy Christmas to you both.

  8. Liam says:


    Thanks. Anamnesis is of course the most appropriate word; and in Christian usage not only draws from the Greek but also the Hebrew precedent in zikkaron.

    My confusion over “instrumental” or “intrinsic” rationality as so far defined is that they seem rather circular in terms of the boundaries between them. At least to me. I will now let that point go given your most favorable clarification of things.

  9. Neil says:

    Dear Bernard and Liam,

    Thanks for your responses. I don’t think that I’ve been clear, so let me summarize:

    The question is: Is it rational to celebrate Communion?

    We then have to ask: Well, what makes an action rational?

    Most philosophers, according to Graham, would suggest that an action can be either instrumentally or intrinsically rational. It is instrumentally rational if it serves as the means to an end. It is intrinsically rational if it is rational in and of itself – if the action is, we might say, fitting. (I do think that these two terms cover the forms of reason that Liam mentions. When deciding whether the deployment of a metaphor is rational, we would ask whether it successfully served as means to a communicative end or if it was fitting [as in a poem].)

    I would say that it is problematic to say that the liturgy is instrumentally or intrinsically rational. To suggest that the purpose of the liturgy is to be an efficient means to an end would reduce it to a mechanism. To suggest that the liturgy is fitting for us human beings in and of itself threatens to reduce it to a contemplative or therapeutic aid – the equivalent of a very beautiful poem or concert.

    I don’t mean to deny that parts of the liturgy could serve as means for particular ends (e.g., teaching moral lessons) or be fitting for human beings (e.g., as contemplation). But to pronounce that liturgical action is rational because it is instrumentally or intrinsically so, I think, dangerously reduces the meaning of liturgical action.

    So, we need another way to speak of liturgical action as rational. My answer: Liturgical action is rational because it is enactment – it brings the cosmic drama of salvation “to life.” Thus, it is a rationally assessable action, just like other forms of enactment are rationally assessable.

    Is “enactment” as rich a term as anamnesis? Of course not. But does its use contradict the theological meaning of anamnesis? No. Does the language of “enactment” get us to the gateway of the language of anamnesis? Yes.

    “Enactment” is a philosophical term that makes something of what we mean by anamnesis intelligible to certain other Christians and non-Christians. Furthermore, it relates liturgical action to other forms of human action, such as drama.

    Thus, I think, it is a useful term for a broad discussion of rationality and liturgical action with a number of presumably diverse dialogue partners.

    Is this clear?

    BTW, I might be slow in answering responses since I’m not near home or office.

    Thank you.


  10. Dear Liam:

    Thank you for that reference to the hebrew word, zikkaron. My knowledge of semitic languages is quite limited, a lack which I hope soon to remedy. I shall certainly follow up on that one.

    Dear Neil:

    To take your last points first, and to work my way backwards, yes, I agree with you that the term “enactment” is a useful term, particularly in that it serves to correct what appears to be the Calvinist interpretation of anamnesis as a simple memorial. I also agree with you that it is not as useful or descriptive a term as anamnesis. While I would prefer to use the latter term, I will grant you the use of the former, insofar as it assists in clarity in theological discussion.

    And yes, I am also willing to grant you that thinking of liturgy as enactment is an eminently reasonable action. I think, nonetheless, that I have clearly indicated, through my reasoning in my posting above, that serving the Divine Liturgy is both instrumentally and intrinsically rational. To quote Pontius Pilate, quod scripsi, scripsi.

    That said, I entirely agree with you that we should reject any appeal to an argument which says that we should serve the Divine Liturgy in order to obtain some other end, even if it is our own salvation. That way leads to theurgy, the mistake of the magicians and those addicted to magical thinking, that we can make God do what we want Him to. God forbid.

    I believe, however, that there are two ways in which an action may be instrumentally rational: (1) We do it because it it serves some other end; and (2), We do it because Reason indicates that it should or must be done. I believe that I have adequately demonstrated in my posting above that our serving the Divine Liturgy because of the commandments of our Lord is instrumentally rational in the second sense.

    I would give another example of that second sense, in quoting from the Proverbist: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.”

    That said, I will point out that in the Greek Church, and in the Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, and the Hours, the Divine Liturgy and Worship is referred to as a “doxa logike”; in other words, a “reasonable” or “rational worship”.

    As always, it is a pleasure reading your postings, and in reasoning together with you.

  11. Neil says:

    Dear Bernard,

    Thanks again for writing so charitably. I think that we agree on most things.

    I would only want to say that the term instrumental rationality should be reserved for reason (1). After all, we might suggest that reason compels us to spend time developing friendships without any particular end in mind, which would be an example of intrinsic rationality.

    And I would hope that most Calvinists today would agree that anamnesis is not just a psychological remembering. I think that there is some broad ecumenical agreement on anamnesis.

    But it is, I think, much more important that we agree that liturgical action is rational, and that magic thinking is very bad indeed.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom.


  12. Liam says:

    Bernard (& Neil)

    When one reflects on zikkaron, one sees the connexion to ikons and the synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem, as it were: the event/Person re-presented in liturgy or ikon is experienced metaphysically therethrough.

  13. Dear Neil:

    You are most welcome.

    While I think that a case can be made that an instrumental rationality can include both senses that I have set forth, I am willing, for the sake of both charity and clarity, since you set up the definition, to reserve it to the first of the two senses.

    And when I made use of the term Calvinist, I was endeavoring not to make use of a pejorative, but a descriptive adjective, and to refer to the teachings of John Calvin. From what I have seen of our Reformed brethren, I believe that they have moved on from the 16th century polemics, to their very great credit. One should try not to open old wounds.

    Dear Liam:

    I should very much like it if you were to refer me to some source, preferably on the internet, regarding the hebrew word zikkaron. It seems that when I google the word in question, it mainly refers to the Israeli holiday, Yom ha-Zikkaron, the day in which they honor those who fought for the independence of the modern state of Israel. While I, too, honor them for their struggle, and wish their memory to be eternal, yet I would very much appreciate it if you could help me to learn more of this.

    And, with this, I will attempt to honor the Nativity of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, which shall occur in two days, by reciting from memory the Troparion of the Feast:

    Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
    Has shown to the world the Light of Wisdom.
    For by it those who worshiped the stars
    Were taught by a star to adore Thee,
    The sun of Righteousness,
    And to know Thee the Dayspring from on high.
    O Lord, Glory to Thee.

  14. Liam says:


    I first encountered the word a generation ago in the context of Pesach – namely, that the word signifies the belief that observant participation in the rituals of Pesach is a participation in the actual Pesach-Exodus event itself. It’s not a mere remembrance. Likewise, Shavuot brings the observant to the foot of Sinai, et cet.

    What i find interesting is how this idea is Jewish without Greek metaphysical ideas; what we see in Catholicism & Orthodoxy seems to be an adumbration of the Jewish core idea with the ductile tools of Greek metaphysics.

    Merry Christmas to all; I am travelling before dawn on Christmas Eve until Friday.

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