Liturgy & Seriousness…Play & Merriment

“We must play.  But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” — C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

My friend, Susan, and I just recently had a little exchange on a video she’d forwarded (along with attendant comments from others) which showed an Ontario Anglican parish serving a “Cat in the Hat”-themed Eucharist.  These types of events abound, and have for a good 30+ years.  After the first blush of seeing the Rector process to the altar wearing a large hat in a rather playful manner, a person like me gets rather put-out because I’m by personality a conservative.  I don’t like seeing things I enjoy and respect toyed with in what seems to me a foolish manner.

 On the video, the Rector and his youth pastor, in interview-format, offer comments as to why they planned and executed such an event.  (It seemed to have been done rather well.) It was all about inclusivity and invitation and playfulness and merriment.  The congregation was full of older people who are clearly enjoying themselves, if a bit bewildered.  The worshipers go to the altar rail reverently at communion-time to receive Communion from the en-hatted priests.  It was hard to judge the reaction of the children.  But that’s not odd.

Time for a couple questions:  Why are traditional liturgies traditionally performed (I mean normal and usual) considered unfit for children?  We don’t pave children’s streets, build children’s houses and construct children’s airplanes?  They seem to do just fine.  Children always aspire to be adults.  They like to approach adult-dom.  I’m not sure how much they like adults to approach kid-dom.  Kids assume that the realm of adult life is stable, and that kid life is in flux.  Why do adults think that kids want adults to go backward and make their world the status quo?  Did you, as a kid?  I didn’t.  I consider that issue now closed.

A second question to my theme:  Why are traditional liturgies traditionally performed seen as unconducive to play and merriment?  “Play” in current English is used to denote make-believe and games.  It may also refer to physical exertion that is recreational, usually sport.  That includes games.  Since Christian liturgical worship isn’t about make-believe and games as such, I suggest that “play” is rightly excluded from the realm of liturgy.  “Merriment” usually implies “having fun” for its own sake.  I might host a party simply for the sake of gathering, setting aside “earthly cares,” and enjoying a cold one or two with congenial companions.  No object.  No commemoration.  Just enjoyment.  Christian liturgy excludes this, also, since it has an Object.

A third question is begged:  Why do so many try to make liturgy the realm of “play” and “merriment” as I’ve defined them above?  We don’t try to make hide-and-seek liturgical.  And we don’t ritualize parties.  Neither should we.  Games and sport don’t need to be sacralized; they are accepted as legitimate in and of themselves. And while parties introduce many dangers (drunkenness, idle talk, gossip), even the Amish gather socially as do monks.  They simply don’t require defending; they are accepted as completely natural.  Why is liturgy, almost alone amongst human activity, not accorded this natural status?  Why, for it to continue into contemporary life, does liturgy need to be constantly tweaked, molded, fiddled with, and combined with other endeavors in order to have its legitimacy?

It does not.

Liturgical action is natural to human beings.  Ritual itself is natural, from how we bathe to how pitchers prep their pitches to how we conduct birthday celebrations.  And owing our thanks and praise and devotion to the Creator is, of course, highly ritualized due to its universal character.  (The most ardent individualist Protestants aren’t without public worship ritual.  Rituals are developed in order to stave off ritualism.)  Rituals are necessary in order to pass along habits of life and mind to another generation.  It goes without saying.  Kids are hugely ritualistic in their play.  They love habits and set behavior.

The busy-bodyness, ever-meddling style of modern life insists on making all of life alike.  Few things are allowed to stand on their own.  Work must mix with recreation must mix with worship must mix with family must mix with work-mates.  Employers are concerned about our psychological health while ministers are concerned that we get enough “down time.”  It’s assumed, it seems, that all spheres of life must be integrated or we are “compartmentalizing.”

Now, I’m very much for a holistic view and working-out of life.  I’m not in favor of over-rigid categories that lead to lack of cross-pollenization, isolation and loneliness.  I’m not in favor of the return to over-formal stratification in personal and public life.  I am in favor, however, of areas of life retaining their proper authority and integrity.

If people want “play” and “merriment” in liturgy, it can only be because they’ve lost Joy.  Joy is a definite liturgical virtue.  We bring it with us to liturgical observance and we take it away.  We bring to liturgy the joy we have in life fostered by family, work, experience, forgiveness, belonging and hope.  We take away a renewed sense of joy as we encounter divine forgiveness, beauty, eternal perspective and the ground of faith.

A wonder of Joy is that it is not dependent upon “program” and planning.  It does not submit to personality.  True joy is based upon Truth.  Truth, to be sure, can be veiled and suppressed.  But when Christian Truth – the reality and ends of Creation, Incarnation and Restoration in the real Person of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ – is proclaimed and celebrated in forms that rise above mere currency, joy will not be suppressed.  It cannot because it is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Seriousness is not antithetical to Joy.  Dourness is no servant of seriousness.

Formality does not invite coldness.  When it is distant and unfeeling, it is not cured by changing a text because the sickness is not the form but the heart.  Conversion is wanted.

In Orthodox sensibilities, “joy” takes many forms that include noise and quiet, stillness and movement, affirmation as well as penitence.  We call repentance “bright sadness.”  Lent is termed a “feast.”  On Pascha we still pray “Lord, have mercy.”


If in our liturgical observances and celebrations we are getting bored, the Cat in the Hat will provide no cure.  If our children aren’t aspiring to be grown-ups, and are not feeling welcomed and invited in our celebrations, introducing flippant “merriment” and out-of-place “play” isn’t going to rectify that situation.

If Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, it cannot be manufactured or devised, planned or contained.  It can be sinned against by hypocrisy and idolatry.  It can be suppressed by the legalist and judgmental.  But where the Truth is proclaimed and lived with integrity and authenticity, it will abound. And it will spread.

And children will catch it.

About Rdr. John

I'm a musician: I teach piano and am a professional Accompanist (University of Portland). I'm also a music director. I direct the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church choir (Portland, OR), the Francis Street Singers (Community Music Center) as well as for Mock's Crest Productions, which puts on an operetta at the U of P each June. I care deeply about the music and worship in the Orthodox liturgy, and most of my postings will be concerned with that.
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1 Response to Liturgy & Seriousness…Play & Merriment

  1. Pingback: “If people want “play” and “merriment” in liturgy, it can only be because they’ve lost Joy.” | Conservative Christianity, Worship, Culture, Aesthetics - Religious Affections Ministries

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