The Christian Church has often had a difficult and vexed relationship with the theatre, over the centuries. On the one hand, St Augustine referred to the theatres as “dens of iniquity”, and on the other, Angie and the choir are always trying to persuade me to go to the pantomime. It’s a great puzzle.
But even if he didn’t like or approve of theatres, St Augustine thought Christians could learn something from them. What struck the blessed doctor was not the music, or the costumes, or the drama of the plays, but rather the way theatre fans kept telling him about it:
For in the theatres, dens of iniquity though they be, if a man is fond of a particular actor, and enjoys his art as a great or even as the very greatest good, he is fond of all who join with him in admiration of his favourite, not for their own sakes, but for the sake of him whom they admire in common; and the more fervent he is in his admiration, the more he works in every way he can to secure new admirers for him, and the more anxious he becomes to show him to others; and if he find any one comparatively indifferent, he does all he can to excite his interest by urging his favourite’s merits: if, however, he meet with any one who opposes him, he is exceedingly displeased by such a man’s contempt of his favourite, and strives in every way he can to remove it. Now, if this be so, what does it become us to do who live in the fellowship of the love of God, the enjoyment of whom is true happiness of life, to whom all who love Him owe both their own existence and the love they bear Him, concerning whom we have no fear that any one who comes to know Him will be disappointed in Him
And this passage has always surprised me, because I didn’t think that the fourth century contained any Benedict Cumberbatch fans. But I mention all this because today’s Gospel reading made me think of our own church services, and what they have in common with the theatre.
We all gather together, and some of us wear special clothes (or costumes), and we pause occasionally for hymns (or musical numbers), and a lot of what we say to each other is written down in a little book (or script). There’s even drinks afterwards when the drama is over, where we can unwind and chat to each other, like a little cast party. And those are not the only ways in which our services remind me of the theatre. Because the words we speak to each other are very often taken from the Bible. In today’s Gospel reading, Simeon speaks a song or poem which has become known as the “Nunc dimittis”:
O Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
According to thy word
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation
Which thou has prepared in the sight of all peoples
A light to lighten to the Gentiles,
And to be the glory of thy people Israel.
This is one of the most frequently performed numbers in the Christian tradition. Is a classic show-closer. It’s said or sung as part of a number of services, including Compline, the night prayers said in the Anglican tradition. Hundreds of thousands of people pray these words every day, reciting Simeon’s words as we will later in the service.
And though this is one of the most famous, and most frequent, uses of a poem from the Bible, it is far from the only example. The liturgy that we take part in each week is drenched in Scripture. So many of the words we speak, which we use to reply to each other, come from the Bible. But it is not just a patchwork of Biblical snippets, it is a set of voices and dramas which we inhabit.
When we say the Sanctus – “Holy, Holy Holy Lord, God of power and might”, we are repeating the words which he prophet Isaiah saw the angels singing around the throne of God. We repeat this moment of adoration and worship, making the angels’ words our own. When we continue “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, we are reciting the cry of the crowds who greeted Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem. Within a few lines we have acted the part of the angels and then of the crowds, praising and adoring our God.
When we sing the Agnus Dei – “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world/ Have mercy on us” – we are again reciting others’ words. First our own patron, John the Baptist, who greeted Jesus’ appearance by the Jordan by telling the people “Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world”. Then we take up the cry of the blind beggars outside Jericho, who shouted “Lord have mercy upon us, thou son of David”. In the Gospel stories, those beggar are told to be quiet by the people nearby, but they won’t, and they cry out again “Have mercy upon us, thou son of David”, just as we repeat our prayer.
Caught up in our singing, we proclaim the words of the wild prophet seeing the world’s salvation walking to him across the desert, and we repeat the entreaties of the beggars who cannot see their salvation, but who know that only Jesus can save them. I have been saying “we repeat their words”, but something far more extraordinary happens. We do not simply quote these people, because they said things that are true or right and we agree with them. It is much more than that. We act them, speaking and singing their words in a drama, a recreation of the moments when they were confronted with the presence of the Living God in Jesus Christ.
In this acting out of the dramas of the Bible, we inhabit voices and postures which can feel strange and even uncomfortable at times. I think that is part of the point. Just as theatre acting can allow us to explore the inner life of a medieval king in Henry V, or girl in nineteenth-century Russia in Three Sisters, so our liturgy allows us to inhabit other characters, and see how it feels to speak their words to God. For a short space, we can act John the Baptist, or the beggar by the gate, or the centurion or the seraphim. We can stand aside from ourselves and see what it might feel like to say these things to God, and we may find that the more we act them, the more we comprehend them, and wrap ourselves round the words, and the more they become part of us.
Our liturgy gives us the chance to act out these dramas of salvation, and to be changed by them. To enter each week into the drama of these encounters with Christ, and to discover what it means for us. But we don’t just do this as a holy reminder. We don’t just look back at people far in the past cut off from us, and do some pious fancy-dress by pretending to be them.
We recite these words and we act these moments, because we are the Church. And these dramas are moments when the vocation of the Church was discovered. When John the Baptist hailed the Messiah. When Simeon saw the fulfilment of the word. When Mary spoke her yes to God. When the beggars put their trust in Jesus’ salvation.
We don’t look back at them and just quote their words and their stories. We don’t come into a dark, silent theatre where nothing’s happening, turn the lights on and start the play. Instead, we find our way out of the wings onto the stage, and discover that the play is already going on. The drama of the Church’s response to God, and playing it out is our duty and our delight. So today, when we celebrate the presentation of Christ at the Temple, when we take part in the blessing of the candles, and when we all join in Simeon’s words, we take on that drama.
“Oh Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, According to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the sight of all peoples. A light to lighten the Gentiles, And to be the glory of thy people Israel.” We re-enact Simeon’s song of adoration and thanksgiving, and we get some sense of what it means to speak these lines in this place, and what action will best be suited to show their real meaning. In this holy theatre we have been the angels, the prophet, the Baptist, the beggars, and we take all these roles out through the church doors. Out there, where the Church’s vocation is so serious and so joyful that we can truly call it a “play”.