The Liturgy and Play

I study at an Opus Dei university, so I hear a lot about how work sanctifies our daily life, one of the principal teachings of St Josemaria Escrivà. Because Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, labored alongside St Joseph in the carpenter’s workshop in Nazareth, work has been redeemed. The ordinary tasks on daily life can now be an opening to the extraordinary action of God, if we just let it. The skeptic in me, however, is reminded of the fact that work is a four-letter word. It was a punishment for original sin. Toil, that other four-letter word, is an inescapable quality of work in this valley of tears. So shouldn’t we try to escape it as much as possible, and thereby anticipate our re-entry into the Garden of Paradise where there was no work and no toil?

One of my professors here at Navarre is convinced that Spain has been so backwards for so long, not because of a lack of resources or talent, but because of a cultural propensity going back for centuries that viewed work as beneath the dignity of man. As for me, I try to avoid work as much as possible, and as I write my 300th page of my thesis for the faculty here, I am beginning to think that this very Castilian and very not Opus Dei idea of work as getting in the way of life is not a bad idea at all.

I am struck by the fact that we have made the liturgy into work. From one point of view, this makes sense. After all, liturgy comes from the Greek word leitourgeia, which described the work done on behalf of the people by pagan priests in offering rites as part of civic ceremonies. And with all of the bother of decapitating animals and disemboweling them and reading their entrails, it seems that liturgy has been a lot of work since even before Christ changed the meaning of sacrifice and rite forever.

But we still see liturgy as work. If there is one thing everyone along the liturgical spectrum is doing nowadays, it is working at the liturgy. It is a lot like the welder who puts together lots of various pieces by heat and light, and then sends those welded pieces off to a faceless assembly line where technological efficiency makes them into the things which make our lives more comfortable.

It is also like the lab researcher who breaks compounds down into the most minute particles to see what it is all made of and see how those particles can be out together differently to make other things. It is truly like the advertising mavericks of Mad Men who brainstorm ways to dupe the masses into buying a product that will make them rich.

Everyone is working at the liturgy. The traditionalists: busy restoring the Mass of the Ages to every altar of the world. ICEL: busy preparing a translation that had a shelf-life shorter than a Facebook status. Vox Clara: busy preparing a translation that its adversaries predict will bring about the end of ecumenical councils and the action of the Holy Ghost/Spirit/She Who Is and Must Be Obeyed. Clowns: busying preparing their noses for their next gig in an Austrian Cathedral. People: building Christ our Light in Oakland and people building the chapel for Thomas Aquinas College in Ojai. Canons regular: restoring the sacred and Jesuits lost in Holy Week. Everyone is busy at the liturgy.

I am so busy I am exhausted. I say a twenty minute Mass in a hospital chapel every day and toil over the Liturgy of the Minutes, and I am practically exercised by my patrimony. Why am I so tired, then, when I spend so little actual time reading/praying/proclaiming/celebrating/being Liturgy? Because I spend the rest of my time picking apart why our translations are so bad, why the liturgical reform happened and why it has been so difficult, how I can amass a sacristy to rival the Lateran Basilica’s, plotting the hire of a CMAA musician to make Westminster Cathedral look like chump change, worrying over how to explain to the Liturgy Committee that I can’t wash women’s hands/feets/bad hair coloring job next Maundy Thursday. Like a lot of people, I am tired of working at the liturgy.

How different is the attitude of the children all over the world who open their presents on Christmas morning. Gifts all around them, brought by an invisible but familiar figure, and warmth and love all around. The children rip apart the wrapping paper and play with the wrapping paper for hours. Then they notice that there is a box, and they are fascinated by the containers.

Finally, they get to the actual present, and they realize that the whole experience has been a gift that keeps on giving: so many levels and so much playing to do before Mom and Dad call us to go to Mass because they didn’t go to the Vigil Mass like every other family in the parish who hasn’t been to church since the Easter Bunny went though the house with silent furry feet.

The liturgy is much like that. The central core is not the work we do (unless you are a blood thirsty pagan or a social activist), but the Sacrifice of Calvary. At first glance, it may seem like blasphemy to liken the august Sacrament of the Altar to play. But Our LORD in his wisdom knows our weakness, and so He cloaks the Terrible and Awesome Event of the Passion in the soft garments of sign and symbol, Word and Sacrament.

We are irresistibly attracted to the wrapping in which the Gift is found: the delight to the senses that the ceremonies of the Church produces. And then we gaze and rip into the container for that Gift: the words, the music, the gestures, the art, the architecture. We revel in them. It is as if we play Hide and Seek with the Baby Jesus among the boxes and bows and debris of signs and symbols and rites and ceremonies. He reveals even as He conceals. And our response is one of wonder and awe, but also of joy and perfect gladness. So by the time we get to the Gift, we are ready for it. And it is marvelous in our eyes, because it is what we have always wanted. Not the Gift, the Giver.

When we work too hard at the liturgy, when we think the liturgy depends on our work to tie the bow right or wrap up the box in a certain way, we miss the Gift and the Giver. The Gift and the Giver: the Eucharist received in Holy Communion and the Christ who offers Himself up to the Father in the unity of the Spirit for the salvation of the world. Only when we let ourselves be carried away like children at play with awe and wonder for the gift of the liturgy, can we then work at our daily tasks, and even at the necessary tasks to make the liturgy happen, without being exhausted. The dried blood caked on our baptismal robes from the useless toil of our human working at the liturgy is replaced by the fresh springs of the Precious Blood of Christ renewing the Church through the divine working through the liturgy to help us play with God as His friends. And that, my dear friends, is how we truly sanctify our world.

4 Replies to “The Liturgy and Play”

  1. Thank you Father Smith for the beautiful article,
    To me, as a church musician, the music is supporting the liturgy, the sacrifice of Calvary. I don't expect to be have a perfect music. If I do, I would actually end up 'toiling.' I just tried to find the 'better' way of doing it, if music is required in the liturgy. I learned to trust the 'wisdom' of the Church and tried to understand it, because I experienced the true sacrifice of our Lord through the Church's own music. If we work for perfection, we are essentially working for ourselves. I believe saints were able to carry out all the 'work' because they had joy of working for our Lord, not for themselves.


  2. Thanks so much Fr. I too agree that we are wasting so much breath on the Liturgy- it deserves our time and effort obviously, but it is already provided for us in the Church's books. The time we waste on planning and creating and re-creating the Liturgy would be better spend ad extra- the mission ad gentes…

  3. Dear Father,
    Thank you for this piece.
    I want to bring your attention to an important point: work is not a consequence of sin. Even in Paradise, God gave our first parents work, namely to till and cultivate the Garden. It was not until the Fall that work became toil, which is indeed a punishment for original sin and an inescapable quality of work in this vale of tears. This fact, however, does not eliminate the original goodness of human (an important qualifier!) work.
    More generally, I believe St Josemaria and "the Work" get the sanctifying power of ordinary work because they fundamentally get the essence of the original "opus Dei" – it is precisely because the Sacred Liturgy is understood and lived primarily as GOD's work that the faithful of the Prelature are able to receive the Gift as it is given, without being distracted by 'liturgical toil' (an oxymoron, if there ever was one). Members of Opus Dei are not exempt from faults (an unfortunate 'Low Mass mentality' is often mentioned as an example), but those who assist at Holy Mass in their chapels or oratories are almost always led to delight in the beauty of holiness and to enjoy a foretaste of the glorious freedom of the children of God, which may be fittingly characterized as play. Of course, as Ratzinger reminds us in The Spirit of the Liturgy, "play" would be a very inadequate nail on which to hang a theology of the liturgy, but – as you have so beautifully shown – it certainly has its place.
    Fr Kim D'Souza

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