Liturgy as Subversive Activity

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Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., greets people at Mass at the international border in Nogales, Arizona (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

In Holy Week of 1969 priests of the Golconda Group in Colombia staged a liturgical celebration of the traditional Good Friday observance of the seven words of Christ on the Cross. The words “I thirst” became “I thirst for justice, for equality, for freedom from want, for education.” “Why hast Thou abandoned me?” became a child crying “I’m hungry.” Press reports of these ritual enactments caused scandal among the rulers of the people.

In fact preachers have been making these points for centuries to the edification of pious believers in the status quo. It is only in the context of contemporary liturgical reform that they become a scandal to the rulers of the people, perhaps because the rulers of the people sense that the employment of the concrete forms of religious drama and ritual constitutes a more effective form of communication than the abstract moralizing of centuries of preaching in a traditional liturgical setting. Content is in a sense less important than setting and style in redefining human existence. Papal encyclicals, manuals of moral theology and Christian writers have proclaimed the need for justice, and people have nodded approval and gone about their business. This is not to decry or minimize the importance of theory or of abstract formulations. But in the liturgy we are involved in the praxis of the church, and it is here that the danger of real contagion is greatest.

It might well be claimed that traditional liturgical forms have much the same content as “radical” liturgies: it is the same church, the same Gospel that is proclaimed. But traditional liturgies often embodied a praxis that inoculated believers against social change. The simple imagery of the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine became lost in a sacralized other-worldly utopia; few Catholics would really associate “the host” with the bread they found on their tables at home. The priest had become a sacred personage, a man possessed of magical power, and this removed his words, and the Gospel itself, from the realm of everyday living. Here more than anywhere else the church defined herself for the majority of the faithful, and this self-definition of Christianity was such as to reinforce the submission of people to the established order of things. Authority in the church and in the world was sacralized to the point where change became unthinkable, and this was more than enough to counteract abstract critiques of injustice and the abuse of authority.

Liturgy is play, a ritual play in which men define themselves with respect to God and other men. Even as children at play define interpersonal relationships and learn to cope with the world at large, so men in their religious ritual establish relationships with one another and orient themselves with respect to basic values. In a sense it is not the real world, but a utopia embodying a basic vision of things as they should be; in another sense it is the most serious of human activities. Modern men can smile at the naïveté of the religious celebrations of primitive peoples just as adults can smile at the play of children. Their condescension merits something of the scorn a child has for the adult who offers to bring hay to the child’s broomstick horse; the child is quite aware of the fact that his horse does not eat hay, it is not that kind of horse, and the primitive man is quite aware of the difference between the world of his ritual play and the world of everyday events, although he might not be able to articulate this clearly.

In a sense, for the believer, the ritual world of the liturgy is the world that God has established; our other world, the “real world,” is an approximation of this limited by the vicissitudes of everyday existence. The relationship may not be explicit, or able to be articulated by those who live it, but its quality is vitally important in determining personal relationships and values in the “real world” of everyday living. A liturgical utopia which presents an ordered, hierarchical society in which the sacred authority of the priest is unquestioned is quite another thing from a liturgical utopia which embodies the playful enactment of a classless society whose leaders are servants rather than masters. As far as its intellectual content is concerned, this latter image has always been the liturgy of the church, as for example in the foot-washing ceremony on Holy Thursday. In fact the style even of this ceremony, embellished with court ritual and the sacrilization of priest and pope, was such that the ordered hierarchical world prevailed over the image of a classless society, and one can hardly imagine a poor man whose feet really needed washing presenting himself in the cathedral on Holy Thursday.

Present-day liturgical reforms, unleashed by the Council, are no more subversive in their intellectual content than the liturgies that preceded them. Nevertheless the style has changed, the interpersonal relationships defined in liturgical celebration are different, and the liturgical reform may well be one of the principal sources of the revolution which is not without political consequences, particularly in traditional Catholic societies such as those of Latin America. The Eucharist itself tends to be desacralized, as is the figure of the priest. God’s prototype of the world is redefined, and with it men are freed to redefine the everyday approximation of it. A demythologized authority is no less real, but men define themselves towards it in a very different way, and its, importance for the world of everyday events changes as well.

Liturgy is always utopian, but its relevance for the real world depends on the place of this utopia with respect to the world. In many traditional liturgies the utopia embodied was otherworldly to the extent that it lost its relevance and became, in Mannheim’s terminology, a counter-utopia, an element of ideology, simply because the utopia was presented as other-worldly, as something which could not happen now. This was enhanced by the sacralization of liturgical forms, a tendency that removed them even further from everyday existence even as it placed a taboo on change. It could then be an ideological force for social stabilization even though its abstract content was utopian and in contradiction with the accepted values of a given society. In the Roman communion, language had something to do with it; the use of Latin enhanced the sacralization of liturgical rites and made the contradiction between the Gospel-world of the liturgy and the real world less evident, although this should not be exaggerated, since the other-worldly utopia of vernacular liturgies could be as irrelevant as that of Latin liturgies, and in some cases could go the other way and lose its utopian dimension to the extent that it became completely ideological, i.e., a celebration of the status quo.

The adoption of the vernacular and of new forms of liturgical celebration which are at once utopian and more in communication with the world makes it possible to place the Gospel utopia in real tension with society, particularly as the accent is placed on an inner-worldly utopia rather than an other-worldly utopia. The desacralization of liturgical forms and of the personage of the priest serves to deepen the contradiction. To be sure, the danger exists that this involves simply a secularization of Christianity, an accommodation to the world. In fact it doesn’t seem to have worked this way; those communities that have in effect created new liturgies are often the most committed to change both in the world and in the church.

It should not be forgotten that the liturgical utopia calls into question not only the structures of society as a whole, but also many elements of the internal structure of the church, in particular those which in other epochs were assimilated from secular models and have survived in the church after these models have disappeared in civil society. This is especially the case with models of ecclesiastical authority patterned after those of absolute monarchs, although the most oppressive patterns in the contemporary church are probably not hierarchical but bureaucratic, and here again liturgical utopias tend to contradict them. This may be one of the saving features of liturgy as play; serious people can hardly play at bureaucracy, although in recent centuries a certain amount of paperwork has invaded liturgical practice. It is here, rather than in the attempt to discover more relevant liturgies, that we must see the accommodation to the present world.

The Value of Play

Even with comparatively rigid liturgical structures, a real freedom is possible if these structures can be seen as serious play, yet desacralized to the extent that there be at least an implicit recognition of the playful dimension. Even as they serve to define interpersonal relationships, values, attitudes towards God, men and the world, the structures of liturgical play can have a freeing effect. This is perhaps better understood by Latins, who can on the whole take liturgical play very seriously, but who could seldom, for example, take seriously the idea that missing mass on Sunday could be a mortal sin.

In the latter perspective, liturgical play becomes something that is imposed rather than something that is offered, something that dominates people rather than freeing them, and in so doing destroys the element of play which is fundamental to the liturgy. The same thing is true of a liturgy which is overly sacralized, or for which magical effects are claimed, as in some popular distortions of the ex opere operato motif in post-Tridentine Catholicism.

It is often asserted that the present tendency toward secularization and desacralization of the liturgy and of the role of the priest is prejudicial to the transcendent dimension of man’s religious commitment. I think not. As in the case of the other-worldly utopia or the supposed transcendence of a Latin liturgy, the opposite danger is more real: instead of a real witness to transcendence, we are faced with a sort of projected immanence, a human structure which is as opaque to mystery as the most banal of inner-worldly utopias or liturgies.

Real transcendence can be witnessed only in dialectic with immanence; in the best of hypotheses, the Latin monastic liturgies succeeded quite well, because Latin really was a second living language for the monks, and absurd and arbitrary rubrics and rules can free people when they are freely accepted as absurd and arbitrary, that is when they are seen as play and not given a sacred or ontological value as a sort of objective measuring standard of human existence. This is our approximation of the world the way God wants it to be; it becomes heretical when we begin to think that God, and not ourselves, has made it.

There is real parallel here in the primitive intuition of the founder of the Dominican Order: the rules of the institution were never to be so construed that their infringement constituted a sin. This has, I think, been distorted by such notions as that of a “merely penal law” and other attempts to reduce these rules from the realm of play to that of ontological determinants, thus making them a means of oppression rather than a means of freedom. The medieval legal prescription obliging Christians to go to church under pain of mortal sin represents just this sort of ontologizing and consequent betrayal of the Gospel as a force to free men from religious alienation, as well as a denial both of real transcendence and of the gratuity of grace, if the redundance may be permitted. By pretending that a rule or a ritual can adequately define the human, rule and ritual are in effect deprived of transcendence and of the gratuitous quality essential to Christianity. The human tendency is to ontologize these structures so that freedom is prejudiced in favor of security, in favor of religion over grace. Mediterranean and Latin cultures, in spite of radical religious conservatism in some areas, seen) to have preserved this value more than Northern European cultures; in a sense the virulent anti-clericalism which has been endemic in Latin cultures may well be in part an authentic Christian response to the constant attempts on the part of the clergy to ontologize religion. The people have understood this better than the clergy.

It is perhaps here that the real danger of “relevant” contemporary liturgies lies, rather than in the fact that they reject the imposition of uniform patterns on the post-Tridentine model. They can be taken too seriously, become too “involved” and lose their playful and freemaking dimension. This easily becomes a new way of making them ideological rather than utopian, ontological rather than gratuitous, imposing rather than offering a new definition of the human. Paradoxically, it is here that they cease to be subversive and become a new instrument of domestication, a new institutionalization of that which must be gratuitous, a new magic and a source of fear and unfreedom rather than a source of joy and liberation. As a danger, this is as real as the imposition of a hierarchical and sacralized social model in the medieval and post-Tridentine liturgies, although the danger is not always present in concrete instances. Hopefully, it is a danger which is seldom realized, but we should be aware of the fact that the danger exists on the “left” as well as on the “right.”

The really subversive dimensions of liturgical reform are often perceived more clearly on the fight than on the left or among liberal reformers, even when changes are relatively subtle. Rightist groups in the Church have attacked the restoration of the Cathedral in Cuernavaca, Mexico, as “heretical,” when in fact it is soberly done and is in a real sense profoundly traditional; there is nothing there that offends against the Constitution on the Liturgy, nothing in fact that contradicts the prescriptions of the Code of Canon Law. But it does redefine liturgical space in such a way that interpersonal relationships in the liturgical celebration are changed. Liberal reformers can often proceed happily to change liturgical structures without realizing that their own place in the church—in the case of clerics—must almost necessarily be radically redefined, even to their own destruction as a power group in the church. The mere fact of desacralizing liturgical forms to make them more relevant will almost inevitably desacralize the figure of the priest and eventually, of all human authority; it is here that liturgical reform becomes most radically subversive.

It is not in the proclaiming of new, even leftist ideologies, that the church frees men for revolution, but in effectively freeing them for revolutionary activity by redefining personal relationships in the community, and by accentuating the playful dimension so that men can be free even in their religious activity. In itself, this is not enough to provoke a revolution, but it can remove one of the principal obstacles to radical change. It should also be obvious that this writer has no objection to leftist political ideologies, but like the old rightist ideologies, if they become sacralized, if they are given a religious value, they can easily become counter-revolutionary.

All this is hardly conducive to security, and as opium peddlers the churches have provided a considerable amount of security. And an obsessive search for security can effectively kill Christianity in one way or another, whether this be the security of absolute personal authority or of group identity. It might be added that the substitution of security for grace constitutes yet another denial of real transcendence. In a religious vision which leaves room for real transcendence, God is the only absolute. Creation is where men are free to play.


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