Saturday, August 25, 2007

Quotation and not dramatic depiction

There is an interpretation of the Eurcharistic Prayer that would draw us away from the context in which the liturgy is performed before God the Father: we may be inclined to think that the consecration is rather like a drama, a play performed before the congregation. We may even tend to think that the congregation is involved in the play, as depicting the disciples at the Last Supper: the priest takes the role of Christ and the congregation the role of the apostles. To this way of thinking, the words and gestures of the priest are seen as dramatic depictions of what Christ did and said at the Last Supper.

Such a dramatic interpretation of the Mass would not be appropriate. It is more fitting to think of the words and gestures of the priest as quotational, not dramatic. The priest quotes the words and gestures of Christ; he does not perform then in the manner of an actor. There are several reasons why quotation is a more fitting presentational form for the consecration than drama.

First, to see the consecration as a drama would shift the focus of the liturgy from its relation to God the Father to an axis between the priest and the people. The liturgy would cut away from its presence before God, which had been established in the Preface and Sanctus, and it would be centered on the dramatic impact on of the priest acting before the congregation as audience or participants. Second, such an interpretation would highlight the Mass as representing the Last Supper, but would diminish its reenactment of the redemptive death of Christ. The Mass would be seen as a sacred meal and not a sacrifice. Third, this interpretation would place the liturgical emphasis on the person of the priest as the performer; drama highlights the present actor, whereas quotation takes us away from our present context and lets someone else speak through us. If Lawrence Olivier is depicting Hamlet, we think of Olivier, not primarily Hamlet, as taking center stage; but if we quote what someone says we subordinate our voice and especially the content of our speech to that other person. We let someone else speak through us and we subject our responsibility to his. Christ is more palpably the speaker when we take his words as being quoted than if were to take the priest as dramatically representing him. Christ, the one who is quoted, speaks with the authority of the incarnate Son of God, as one who has the power to bring about what he declares in his words. Fourth, in the old rite the possibility did not arise that the priest was dramatically depicting the Last Supper before the congregation; the focus was entirely toward God the Father.

The difference between quotation and dramatic depiction is also relevant to the prayerful attitude of the priest. If the priest sees his words and his gestures as quoting those of Christ, he can more appropriately see himself as the servant of both Christ and the Church, the person who is there to hand on to others the message and the achievement of Christ the Lord. If the priest were to see himself as a dramatic actor, his own person and style would come to the fore in an inappropriate and probably intrusive way. His would be the primary agency. Quotation affords a salutary anonymity to the priest in his sacramental ministry. It also relieves the priest of a burden that actors have, that of finding every new ways of making their performance interesting to their audience. The priest is not there to perform; he is there to accomplish the liturgy as it is written in the Roman Missal. He is there as the servant of Christ and the Church, a servant who becomes quotationally transparent in the words and gestures of the consecration. Christ is the ultimate minister of the Eucharist, and his activity is perceptibly manifest when his words and gestures are quoted at the center of the Church’s offering.

The Church’s quotation of the words and gestures of Christ is done primarily before God the Father. Christ’s speech comes to life in an address before the eternal Father, expressing the eucharistic action of the Son toward the Father. However, at the Last Supper the words of Christ were directed toward the disciples (Take this, all of you, and eat it: for this is my body, which will be given up for you). Certainly an overtone of such an address spoken by Christ, now directed toward the people, remains in the words of the consecration, but the primary focus of the celebrant toward God the Father is never interrupted. When the priest recites the words of the consecration, he will quite naturally tend to take them as being spoken to the faithful, but he should not let the theocentric focus of the Church’s prayer be lost.

— Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, Praying the Canon of the Mass, in his Christian Faith & Human Understanding: Studies on the Eucharist, Trinity, and the Human Person (Catholic University Press, 2006), pp. 89–91

I go to church to see God and come away like a theatre critic.
Martin Mosebach

See also Fr. Jay Scott Newman, Worshipping the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness.