The Greatest Show On Earth

Last week, I went to the greatest show on earth: the Paschal Triduum of the Catholic Church. (If you don’t know what that is, check out my video for this week.)

In reflecting on my experience over the past week, and in defense of the title I chose, I thought I would share a bit about the difference between a “show” and a liturgy, and why I think the Triduum is a wonderful example of this.

Participation

When we go to a show (or watch something on television or computer), we are a passive spectator. Communication goes in only one direction: we sit and information is given to us. While our occasional laughter, cheers, or clapping may effect the experience of the performance if we are in attendence, in reality, we add nothing to what is actually going on; the show goes on just the same whether we are there or watching on television.

A liturgy, on the other hand, depends on our presence. We do not attend as passive spectators waiting to receive entertainment, we attend as active worshippers, coming together to create something new. Not only are their parts of the mass that are rightfully the responsibility of the congregation and inappropriate for a priest to take on himself (e.g. responses such as “and with your spirit”) there is a sense that there is more to the reality of the service than simply what is going happening “on stage.” In our greeting one another, singing in the pews, offering a sign of peace, walking in procession, offering our personal prayers and sacrifices, and so on, we are not simply watching a show, we are making the liturgy (hence its name, from the Greek, which means “the work of the people.”)

And how this is even more true for the Triduum. We are not simply attending a concert or beautiful commemoration of past events put on by actors, we are, together, building an environment where that mystery is made present. Even more than our already active, “Catholic calisthenic” worship services with standing and kneeling and moving all around, we make ourselves a part of the work of the people during the Triduum with special gestures, processions, elaborate songs, and special roles.

Entering a symbolic reality

And yet, it is not as if we are simply attending an improvisation theatre production with major audience participation; a liturgy is not just a play that involves its audience. As theatrical and dramatic as a liturgy is, what we do is not a matter of recreating the past with actors and scenes, attempting to mimic past events with historical accuracy. No, liturgy is the act of entering into a symbolic reality of what those past events represent, offering praise and thanksgiving from our own cultural and historical reality.

What do I mean by this? Well, liturgy is not a passion play in which we take the Bible and make a script out of it, trying to get everything exactly right. Rather, it is an act in which we look at the reality of what happened (e.g. Jesus humbled himself and died on a cross) and create an environment in which the importance of that action makes the most sense to us today. There is no need for costumes; we don’t need to have every detail included or follow the exact order. We do not speak in the language that Jesus did; we do not sing the songs that the disciples did; there is no need to make the gestures exactly as they would have. What is significant is not the historical events as they happened, but making present what we find significant about them. What we do is speak our own language, sing our own songs, and make our own culturally appropriate gestures that capture what the original meant.

How true this is with the liturgy of the Triduum. With old and new coming together, we find an expression of ourselves and our history making the reality of Jesus known. Surely, he did not use a Paschal candle, sing the exultet, wear priestly vestments with specific colors and designs, process as a whole community to wait in the night, and so on. But these images and symbols and gestures make sense to us, evoke some meaning from our own lives, that help us to enter into his historical reality.

And so, was the Paschal Triduum the “Greatest Show on Earth?” Technically, no, because it was not a show at all. It was a liturgy, the act of a community coming together to build a reality that makes another, deeper reality present. It is not like the circus or a performance of Hamilton or even a contest in which the audience participates by voting. And yet, what an amazing job it does of capturing our attention and entering us into a reality far from our own, just as “shows” do. That, for me, is what makes it the best “show” around: it pulls from the technique and quality of those shows we love to watch, while also calling us out of our safe space to be an active part in making it present. Truly, there is nothing better.

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2 Comments on “The Greatest Show On Earth

  1. Redemption

    Having been tenant long to a rich lord,
    Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold,
    And make a suit unto him, to afford
    A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’ old.

    In heaven at his manor I him sought;
    They told me there that he was lately gone
    About some land, which he had dearly bought
    Long since on earth, to take possessiòn.

    I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
    Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
    In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts;
    At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth

    Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied,
    Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

    -George Herbert

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