Monday 17 June 2013

On ‘Liturgical Dance’: Sursum corda

At Youth and school Masses (should we not say ‘Masses celebrated in schools’ or ‘Mass with the youth’?) we are expected to happily welcome ‘liturgical dance’ or songs performed with interpretive gestures. Yet there is no such thing as ‘liturgical dance’ or interpretative presentations; they are out of place in Eucharist-centred worship:
"Notitiae" 11 (1975) 202-205 characterised as a ‘qualified and authoritative sketch.’  

Neither can acceptance be had of the proposal to introduce into the liturgy the so-called artistic ballet, because there would be presentation here also of a spectacle at which one would assist, while in the liturgy one of the norms from which one cannot prescind is that of participation.
The traditional reserve of the seriousness of religious worship, and of [Roman Catholic] worship in particular, must never be forgotten.
If local churches have accepted the dance, sometimes even in the church building, that was on the occasion of feasts in order to manifest sentiments of joy and devotion. But that always took place outside of liturgical services.
Conciliar decisions have often condemned the religious dance because it conduces little to worship and because it could degenerate into disorders.
Dance, skits etc., may well have a place in paraliturgies since they can be useful in engaging the youth (and those who seek an animated experience of worship), but the Eucharist is altogether different since in the Eucharist, God the Son worships God the Father; a worship to which we unite ourselves by consciously, actively, lifting up our hearts (Sursum corda). A few brief points will illustrate why dance, interpretive gestures, comedic homilies etc., are inappropriate in the celebration of Mass.
First, the sanctuary is the holy of holies; symbolic of the place where the Most High Dwells. In terms of spirituality then, it is inappropriate to upstage God in His own sanctuary. In terms of liturgy, the sanctuary is the Presbyterium where the priests of the Lord offer His Divine Sacrifice. Since priests have been called by God and set aside by Him for a specific role within the community, to have laity (children or adults) gather around the altar where the presbyter fulfils his role does not so much blur the distinction of our God-given roles as demolish it.
General Instruction of the Roman Missal 2012: Arrangement Of A Church For The Liturgical Assembly

294. The People of God, gathered for Mass, has a coherent and hierarchical structure, which finds its expression in the variety of ministries and the variety of actions according to the different parts of the celebration. The general ordering of the sacred building must be such that in some way it conveys the image of the gathered assembly and allows the appropriate ordering of all the participants, as well as facilitating each in the proper carrying out of his function.
The faithful and the choir should have a place that facilitates their active participation.
The priest celebrant, the deacon, and the other ministers have places in the sanctuary. Seats for concelebrants should also be prepared there. If, however, their number is great, seats should be arranged in another part of the church, but near the altar.

Second, and importantly, dance and comedy alter the way the Holy Mass is perceived. When the talents of comedy and dance are used in the liturgy we inherently imply that Holy Mass is but another context in which our gifts and skills can be displayed and affirmed. Further, since comedy and dance are enjoyable, we begin to see Mass as something to be enjoyed, just as one would enjoy a school performance or a parish cabaret.
Cardinal Arinze, Prefect of Congregation for Divine Worship, Apostolate for Family Consecration Conference, 2003:
The difficulty is this: we come to Mass primarily to adore God  - what we call the vertical dimension. We do not come to Mass to entertain one another. That's not the purpose of Mass. The parish hall is for that.

Third, dance and comedy change both the focus and the dynamic of the assembly. Dance and comedy, even if the intention is to glorify of God, by their nature solicit our attention on the joke or dance, the homilist or dancers, thereby constituting a distraction from our focus on God. This is not the case when we simply follow the liturgical books in which all we do is God-focused: we are God-focused when confessing our sinfulness, listening to the readings, preaching the Gospel, interceding in the General Intercessions, presenting the gifts, offering the Sacrifice and receiving Holy Communion. This is not so when we change the focus to a dance or jokes. Further, when the focus of those gathered thus shifts, we change the very dynamic of the event from worship of God to the community’s talents, intrinsically turning those present from a worshipping congregation into an audience, effectively creating an ‘intermission’ in the act of worship.
Cardinal Arinze, Prefect of Congregation for Divine Worship, Apostolate for Family Consecration Conference, 2003:
But when you introduce wholesale, say, a ballerina, then I want to ask you what is it all about. What exactly are you arranging? When the people finish dancing in the Mass and then when the dance group finishes and people clap -don't you see what it means? It means we have enjoyed it... So there is something wrong. Whenever the people clap -there is something wrong- immediately.
Fourth, by limiting dance and comedy to paraliturgies we can enhance the status of the Mass; we can help the people to see the Eucharist as sacrosanct. Surely this is something we all want, never mind have a duty to assert? The more that people understand the immense dignity of the Eucharist, the more they will perceive God’s generosity in providing It -and experience their own value to Him in receiving It.
Finally, by implying that the liturgy can be enhanced by use of our human talents in comedy and dance etc., we reduce people’s awareness of the Mass as the sacrosanct pinnacle of Christian worship offered by Christ to the Father. Indeed, our external activity at Mass has become more important to many clergy, teachers, parents and dancing participants (of all ages) than the Actio Christi, the hidden action of Christ in the Eucharist, since they are unhappy when they are told it is to be omitted.
To be sure, no one wants to exclude dance, comedy, skits etc from the religious experience of the youth (or those seeking an animated experience of worship), but we do want to see them used in their proper context and not in the Divine Liturgy that is the Mass. At the Divine Liturgy we are (or ought to be) focused on God from beginning to end, not asked to take time out so as to laugh with comedic homilists or admire and applaud delighting dancers.

P.S. Have you ever noticed that many of those who like (or want to introduce) such things as dance to the liturgy are offended when the (optional) exchange of the sign of peace is omitted and actually refrain from actions which are required in the Missal, such as bowing at the Incarnatus est of the Creed and striking the breast during the Confiteor? 

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