To Play with God who Waits for Us*
*A Reflection on the First Chapter of Pope Benedict XVI's "Spirit of the Liturgy"
Seeking some phenomenological springboard to appropriate Pope Benedict XVI’s application of play-theory to the liturgy, I decided to stroll around Barangka, Marikina trying to observe children at play, while at the same time reminiscing my own experiences of play. One thing that struck me immediately was that most, if not all the children in the streets were playing. In contrast to most of us adults who stride to our destinations in a serious, straightforward way, the children seemed to be passing time with less stress and more spontaneity. This made me nostalgic about how I was during my early years as a student when I would just sit in the classroom savoring experiences as they came instead of worrying about how well I would perform in upcoming assessments.
Liturgy, according to the Pope, has “something healing, even liberating about it” because like play, it has meaning but no set purpose. He therefore images liturgy as an “oasis of freedom” where life flows freely as in the world of children and their play. Away from a world that pressures us to perform and to produce, liturgy transports us to a sacred time and place where there is no need to show merit or prove worth before gauging eyes but simply to be, before our loving God. This is the sursum corda of liturgy, a lifting up of our being to God, in order to ascend, if only for a brief glimpse of eternity, from the banality and drudgery of our mundane existence.
With this definition, some may perceive liturgy as useless daydreaming or a mere waste of time, perhaps even as a cowardly escape from a harsh yet stark reality. But without reclaiming, what I would dare say is our right to dream, and more importantly, to waste time with those we love, are we not being mere slaves to our utilitarian preoccupations? Freely “wasting” time in the liturgy helps us recuperate not only our freedom but indeed our humanity as well. For it is the times that we seem to waste on simply being and loving that are most precious and in the end “useful” because they do not only heal our harassed bodies and minds but also build up our yearning hearts and souls. We humanize the time we spend for liturgy and this time in turn humanizes us. For are we not more than just bodies breathing, working and suffering in this vale of tears but also spiritual beings yearning for transcendence, for eternity, for God? We shall return to the question of escape shortly.
Being care-free in play, however, does not equate to carelessness. Being “at home” with God in the liturgy does not make it a free-for-all where anything and everything goes. Rules have their rightful and essential place in the liturgy as in play. In my previous tasks of coordinating liturgies in San Jose Seminary and later on as moderator of altar servers in Xavier School, I saw tendencies in myself and in others toward two extreme attitudes with regard to the “rules of play” in liturgy: rubrical rigidity and rubrical apathy. Rubrical apathy seems to me an easier illness to treat. Once people are educated about the meaning and importance of the rubrics, they begin to appreciate their importance and so render unto them the measure of attention and concern that is due. Rubrical rigidity on the other hand is more difficult to cure and tends to corrupt even those who claim to be the best of liturgists. As Benedict XVI observed, “the trouble is that serious commitment to the rules needed for playing the game soon develops it own burdens and leads to new kinds of purposefulness.”
Rules are set at the beginning so a game could be suave and orderly. They are not the purpose of the play, for play would surely degenerate into performance or even travail by acquiring such purposefulness. Sadly, this manic obsession with rubrics and compulsion to spot delicts hinders instead of helping our prayer and injures the harmonious and convivial spirit so important for authentic play. Both attitudes rob the liturgy of its joyful air and obstruct its free and integral flow. While those who do not pay attention to rubrics can certainly cause great distraction, those who give too much attention to the rules, in being too distracted, can begin to mutate into distractions themselves.
Play, if it is to remain truly play, must remain unencumbered, more especially by its own rules. Only with such a disposition of freedom and peace, do we begin to experience liturgy as it truly is. Otherwise, what may appear to be worship can be nothing in reality but a repetition of the slavish and perfunctory temple sacrifices disdainful to God. The only worship that befits God, that truly anticipates and gives us a pledge and foretaste of the life that is to come is that which arises from the free and loving hearts of children who are calm, content and happy, not anxious and distressed, in the gift of being with the Father. However, liturgy cannot simply be equated to play in the ordinary sense of the word, which, for all the good we have been praising it here for, remains but a partial and limited aspect of our whole human existence. We cannot live life just “playing” which can sometimes only mean “superficial, utilitarian or humanly vacuous" play. Easily, one can propose that after play, we must ultimately “revert back” to reality. We are thus told to return to the “real world” as if liturgy, though “a kind of other world,” did not belong to one and the same reality. Within such a paradigm, liturgy is but another hat we may wear and take off at will. Taking here a different course, the Pope, in his reflection on the Exodus experience, further nuances our understanding of liturgy as play, such that it would no longer be deemed an escape from existence or a peripheral part of our lives, but would be seen as it truly is and should be: the very heart and soul of our lives.
Pope Benedict XVI here proposes worship, over the reclaiming of the Land, as the primary purpose of the liberation of God’s chosen people from their slavery in Egypt. “Israel departs, not in order to be a people like all the others; it departs in order to serve God.” This orientation to worship, he says, is what is “distinctive about Israel’s election” without which, neither their freedom not acquisition of the land would have meaning. God freed them—and now he frees us—for worship. It must be emphasized however that the worship pertained to here is not the empty ritualism which came to characterize the degenerate worship of Israel at the height of her corruption: the “thousands of rams and tens of thousands of rivers of oil” (Micah 6: 7) which clogged the heart of God not only with cholesterol but with sheer disgust because of their travesty and meaninglessness in the midst of widespread immorality and injustice. Rather, the prophet asserts, the true worship that God requires is “to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with (him).” (Mic 6: 8)
This “interwoven fabric” of worship, law and ethics is the unified, coherent liturgy that we ought to offer, not only with our lips but also with our lives. “Ultimately it is the very life of man, man himself as living righteously, that is the true worship of God, but life only become real life when it receives its real form from looking at God.” Such an integral “worship of life” therefore does not negate the importance of the specific “act of worship” but draws from it, even depends on it. Indeed, we are able to present to God the homage of our lives as a whole only because of the particular times we spend adoring him with acts of authentic worship. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, whose feast it is today, put it succinctly when he wrote: “The glory of God is the living man but the life of man is the vision of God.”
Play, whenever we engage in it, energizes us to live the rest of our lives with the same enthusiasm and joy we have while doing it. Those who play often imbibe the spirit of play, such that their work and even their suffering becomes light, pleasant and joyful—as if play, becoming part of play, truly play. In the same way, the play of the liturgy—which as we said is essentially none other than a loving contemplation of God our Father, ought only to overflow into our very lives and translate to sanctity and justice, service and compassion thus making of us a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, spiritual worship” (Rom 12: 1). In other words, those engaged in true worship become wholly imbued with its spirit such that their life and very person become graced—as if worship, part of worship, truly worship. As envisioned by the Council, liturgy becomes for us a true fons, through which the very life of God flows into our own lives in our contemplation of him. Visio Dei, vita hominis.
Thus, the sublime vision of God, concretized in the sacramental encounter that transpires in the liturgy, becomes no longer an isolated aspect of our life but its very core. Not only our ritual but the entirety of our very lives sing the praises of God as a consilient and homogenous whole that finds but its culmen (SC, 10) in the celebration of the liturgy. Only then is God given true glory—when we live our lives fully as an eloquent testimony to his creative love which we touch, which flows into us, indeed which fills us and permeates our existence, when we enter the play of liturgy. Only then does such a life, “an indispensable part of true worship”, now become the matter now of one’s worship and find in the liturgy its summit and crown, to the praise of God. Gloria Dei, homo vivens.
And yet, our lives still remain imperfect, which can only hint at how much remains to be desired of our worship. As in the days of Aaron and the bull calf, of Micah and empty Temple worship, in our own time of rubrical rigidity and rubrical apathy, our worship falls short of that which God justly deserves and desires. What then could serve as our guarantee and guide, the objective content and the objective ground of our worship as well?
Here the Pope cautions strongly about what he calls “a festival of self-affirmation”—ritual devoid of real encounter with God posturing as liturgy. Man, in his longing for God, attempts in pride or in desperation to produce the encounter himself, to no avail. This “apostasy in sacral disguise” can only leave behind, notwithstanding all solemnity, rubrical perfection or apparent success, nothing more than deep frustration and enduring emptiness. For we know within that there had been no worship but only hypocrisy and self-deception—a show with all its shimmer and sham but not play. Going back at last to the play-theory where we began, we may take off from the Holy Father’s hint.
We do not need to invent liturgy or even produce it. Liturgy as play precedes us way ahead for God in his grace has initiated this play for us from the very moment of Creation. In the liturgy, it is God, not us, who reaches out to make the encounter possible. It is his grace and not out efforts that allows our compenetration. He is the true Master and Manager of the game, which he offers to us as pure and total gift, awaiting our acceptance. Though we have not always been responsive to his call, or perfect in our participation, his invitation ever remains extended for us, concretized in the outstretched arms of Jesus on the Cross.
Christ is the “objective content” of our worship—whom we re-member, celebrate and partake in the sacred liturgy. His Passover from death to life is the most wonderful play, now made accessible to us in the worship of the Church. We need only to enter with the trust and joy of children into this sacred mystery, which continues to flow copiously from his wounded side, spread for us in the abundant fare of the Church’s sacramental banquet. He is the promise that even our imperfect worship will be accepted with His perfect sacrifice which he himself lifts with filial confidence and love to the Father. As Saint John Vianney said, “To be with God and to rejoice in his holy presence—that is the best of all prayers.”
In the end, we need only to play with God who waits for us. †