Much of the study of liturgy concerns itself with the analysis of written texts and the examination of various performances of those texts in worship. This approach, while both interesting and valuable, has the tendency to skew our understanding of worship toward a focus on its representative aspect and to neglect the importance of its concrete and particular aspect. As a way of re-centering attention upon the concrete particular aspect of worship, Megan MacDonald invites readers to shift their attention from text and performance to material objects and performance in the current issue of Liturgy.
MacDonald’s article examines material objects and human physical interaction with those objects at two services which took place during the Paschal Triduum, in 2005 in the Czech Republic: a Maundy Thursday service in a a Dominican Monastery church and an Easter Sunday service in a village church. The Maundy Thursday footwashing and the Czech tradition of bringing a Beranek cake to church on Easter Sunday provide the particular focus. Being unable to understand the Czech language gives MacDonald the ability to focus very intently upon the material objects and the physicality of persons’ interaction with them, in a way which would be nearly impossible for a person whose mind was simultaneously engaged with the words being spoken and sung at the service.
Trevor Hart refers to liturgy as ‘‘putting the ‘story’ or ‘text’ into play through continuous fresh action...rather than being measured in terms of the alleged correspondence between some text and a state of affairs lying beyond or outside it.’’ To think of the liturgy in these terms acknowledges the full range of possible meanings and experiences. There is no way to completely escape the kinds of analysis that dwell on representative meaning. Yet much goes unacknowledged in such an approach. This performance analysis examines liturgical actions with the aim of accessing some of this lost information in the study of religious rituals in Western culture.The question asked at the beginning was: ‘‘What does it mean when this liturgical performance takes place at this time, in this place, with this congregation?’’ The two examples of material liturgical performance examined in this article show that each time the liturgy is performed, meanings are created afresh. Standard, accepted meanings are always present, and these operate concurrently with another range of meanings. Both sets of meanings inform the experience of the congregation and facilitators, but comprehensive analyses of liturgical action take account of all that goes on in the space.
Have you ever considered examining the material/human interactions in your own worshipping community in this way? What could you learn by perhaps watching a recording of your community’s worship with the sound turned off?
Megan Macdonald (2013): Mass Performance: How Material Liturgies Enact the Spiritual, Liturgy, 28:1, 42.
Megan Macdonald has taught drama, theater, and performance studies in the United Kingdom and Canada. She did her doctoral work in performance studies and theology at Queen Mary, University of London.