Liturgy as Theater: Going to Mass Should Be an Awesome, Sacred Drama

By Gurka, Gerald | National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 2009 | Go to article overview

Liturgy as Theater: Going to Mass Should Be an Awesome, Sacred Drama


Gurka, Gerald, National Catholic Reporter


Growing up in the 1960s, I worshiped at two parishes. Both were Roman Catholic. However, the celebration of Mass was very different as I went back and forth from summers in metropolitan Virginia to school in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The basics of pre- and post-Vatican II liturgical celebrations were identical. Nevertheless, at one parish I often found myself daydreaming, planning the upcoming week's calendar. The celebrant's voice was monotone; his liturgical presence was lifeless; it was as if a vampire had drained every ounce of his blood. Hymns were the same selections over and over again, performed in a musical key not even the youngest Vienna choirboy could reach.

In contrast, whenever I attended Mass at the other parish, my mind, heart and soul became thoroughly engaged in the sacrifice of the Mass. The choir was vibrant and it inspired me (not being blessed with the gift of musical pitch) to sing every hymn. The pastor's homilies explained and applied the meaning of the scriptures as if he understood our lives. I saw him at the altar not just as a priest but as Jesus celebrating the Last Supper with us. He even took the time to greet everyone as we left Mass. I would leave church thinking, "Wow! I wish I could be that excited about what I do each day."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I didn't realize it then, but my Virginia experience of Mass was sowing and watering the seeds of my vocation. It also would become my inspiration, as a priest, to write and direct a new Passion play every Lent.

My father, an entertainer and musical therapist, loved history and theater. He and my mother instilled in my brother and me the necessity of faith and worship as well as an appreciation for history and a passion for the arts. From my father, I came to realize that effective theater is effective liturgy.

Religion as theater has its origins in ancient Egypt. The first known theatrical performance was what we today would call a "Passion play." Egyptian plays detailed the events of their gods. Ancient Greece expanded this blend of theater and the sacred to include other mythological characters.

Aristotle, writing in the fourth century B.C., believed that theater evolved from the practice of singing hymns to the god Dionysus. These hymns celebrated the dying and rising of this god, as well as that of every human being. Further plays included dialogue/singing between actors and audience. This was the early prototype for dialogue/singing between celebrant and congregation in liturgy.

The Greeks also gave us the blueprint of theater/church architecture that included "stadium" seating in the round. The ancient Romans expanded this blueprint by incorporating statues, columns, porticos, roofs and a fixed orchestral/choir space.

During medieval times, priests would perform short plays in Latin in their churches. Scripture stories were dramatized to familiarize an uneducated public with the Bible.

In England, wagons became moveable stages for short plays that would enact events from Creation to Judgment Day. This inspired the theater genres known as miracle plays, which presented the lives of saints and martyrs, and morality plays, which taught spiritual lessons. Later, the Italian theater popularized a new genre with sung dialogue. Known as opera, it reflected the influence and popularity of Gregorian chant.

In the 19th century, theater became more experimental in nature, with a growing emphasis on realism. This trend continued into the 20th century, when theater in the United States evolved into one of its most popular forms, the musical. Musicals gave US the style and composition of songs that have influenced many modern-day hymns.

I can still feel the excitement I had in 2000 while waiting in the rain outside the German theater to see the Oberammergau Passion play, the world-famous outdoor pageant that has been performed regularly in that town since 1634. …

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