Liturgy as Holy Play


by Don E. Saliers


One Sunday, in a church I was attending, a woman who received communion in her motorized wheelchair was coming through the line to greet the clergy at the conclusion of worship. It had been a particularly festive eucharistic celebration, with vibrant young voices leading us in the psalm, including a lively procession of small children with cans and boxes of food for a special offering, following the bread and wine brought to the altar. Looking up at the pastor with wide eyes under the brim of a wondrous straw hat she exclaimed, “Didn't we dance today!”

I was suddenly awakened from my routine, if pleasant, after-liturgy greeting next in line. Her remark from the wheelchair startled me into re-perceiving the service just ended. Yes, I realized, yes we had indeed danced—young and old, well-dressed and blue-jeaned, able-bodied and the seemingly not so—all had been in a place of movement toward and around the presence of God incarnate. We gathered, sang, watched, listened, spoke, stood, some kneeling, and processed (on foot and otherwise) to and from a table, some joining hands. Suddenly I saw what we all should know: Christ is in our midst, inviting us to this moving circle of grace. 

Her exclamation brought to mind the saying attributed to Jesus in the Acts of St. John, which depicts the hymn shared with the circling disciples after the meal in the upper room: “Whoever does not dance, does not know what is coming to pass. Amen.”

How easy it is to miss the essentials. How much we fail to see and hear, even in the most ordinary gatherings for the worship of the Holy One. Could it be that every such faithful gathering—whether in great festivity or on those “dull” Sundays—is a time and a place for sacred play, the dance and song around the holiness of God-with-us? What is it that brought the psalmist to sing, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”? What are we missing which echoes in the lines of the twentieth-century church musician-poet Erik Routley:

In praise of God meet duty and delight,
angels and creatures, men and spirits bless'd;
in praise is earth transfigured by the sound
and sight of heaven's everlasting feast.1

Who among us, once having heard and sung (perhaps even danced) the disarming simplicity of what the Shakers taught us, can forget:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
and when we find ourselves in the place Just right,
'twill he in the valley of love and delight.

These are hints and guesses, clues of a revelatory truth. The worship of God in the gathered community is, at its heart, what Romano Guardini called “holy play.”2 For him to liken our worship to play is a bold thing. Yet this is a venerable truth, and is at the origin of true Christian worship and life. Holy play is not the same as restless frivolity or frantic leisure. Rather, it is characteristic of what happens to human beings in community, large or small, who come into relation with the holy love of God for us and for the whole world. To be child-like in wonder and delight, as well as to be confronted together with what it is to be human in the presence of God—these are the qualities and effects of such play.

A little known Easter carol sings: “the whole bright world rejoices now, hilariter, hilariter.” Here is a lost language which lies at the heart of the mystery of authentic Christian worship and life. There is a “hilarity” a high-spirited freedom and joy released by the glory of Christ. Perhaps the oldest hymn, apart from New Testament canticles, still used widely in Christian liturgy is the evening hymn known by its ancient Greek name, the phos hilaron. Some of us know this as “O Gladsome Light.”

Underneath our smoothed-out versions is a deep meaning: the gracious delight and challenging hilaron, the light of Christ, illuminating each day's waning, which is the light of the whole world's salvation. In that light we see the very brightness of God's glory.

We do well to consider the biblical and recurring notion that liturgical praise and prayer is to the Christian life as playful and faithful love-making is to a healthy marriage: marked by deep respect and joy, not always ecstatic nor fully expressed, but capable of such deep communion as nowhere else is to be found. Yet, unlike human nuptial bliss, God extends to every soul and to every communal gathering in God's name the invitation to dance and sing, in lamentation, in solemn thanksgiving, and in playful ecstatic praise.

Certainly there are strong differences among traditions and churches concerning how much and what kind of hilarity is admissible in the presence of God. And we must recall that David dancing before the ark and Herodias’ dance before Herod are both, ambiguously, in scripture. The Puritans, like some of the early Christians influenced by Plato, and surrounded by demeaning pagan rites and the pleasures of gladiatorial games, placed strong strictures on holy play. There was to be no laughter or whistling on the Sabbath; or, earlier, no flute-playing or literal dancing in the liturgy. We can understand these responses to the loss of seriousness about human weakness and the sin of the world. Play as such can be self-destructive and even cruel. Yet it is just the deeper sense of liturgy as holy play which is required in order to understand our humanity and the created order appropriately. Otherwise, we can easily be consumed with our own religious self-seriousness.

How can authentic and faithful Christian liturgy free us to become who we are in God's grace? Two insights are worth pursuing. First, we human beings are created in the image of God, prefigured in the divine becoming human. So we are the object of God's joy as a creating and redeeming God. The Source of our life intends that we should ourselves play in some manner as God does. We are meant to regard the beautiful, and to learn a kind of improvised delight in the simple as well as the deepest matters. We learn to praise God, that everything may be received as gift; we learn to eat and drink together in Christ, that all our meals may be holy, and that we learn to be bread for others. Such a lightness of being knows how to take things seriously, but not so seriously as though we ourselves were finally in charge of the world, much less the whole creation. So Christian liturgy takes sin seriously, but God's grace even more so. This is surely a mark of the “glorious liberty of the children of God” of which the New Testament speaks!

The second insight concerns the divine promises which are at the heart of every liturgical gathering. In Christ the whole world is drawn to God and redeemed, and moved in the direction from which the vision of God's future beckons. The play of liturgy and its power to shape Christian life is thus both future-oriented in hope, and future-present in foretaste. Consider how many of our hymns sing this, whether in Advent through Epiphany, or in Easter-Pentecost. Our central prayers cry this out: “Your kingdom come . . .” and maranatha! (Come, Lord Jesus). At the heart of our baptism and the eucharistic meal is this empowering promise: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” No wonder we speak and enact together the reality of serving the world “until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet.”3 No wonder some traditions say, “Therefore let us keep the feast.”

In a neglected little book, Hugo Rahner speaks of the “sober seriousness” and the “eager lightness” of the Christian life. This is what we yearn for in our liturgical gatherings over time as well. To live prayerfully and gracefully is to live as we worship. “This eager lightness of touch,” Rahner remarks, “is never mere frivolity, for frivolity is always the sign of a secret despair; whereas [persons] who play this game of God [are] secure in the knowledge that [they] proceed from God's own creating and protecting hand."4

But even more powerful than the virtue of “sober seriousness” coupled with “eager lightness” at the heart of liturgy as holy play is the radical claim of Easter freedom. As Jürgen Moltmann claims, “Easter freedom does not permit us to escape from the world or to forget about it . . . both the laughter of Easter and the sorrow of the cross are alive in liberated [human beings].”5 The radical graced ability to laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep, and to gather up both suffering and joy into the song, prayer, and movement about the table in worship—this is the miracle of holy play. This is what authentic liturgy empowers and illuminates: our human being restored and made child-like before God.

In the world of the cynical, the hateful, and captivity to death, such a time and place for re-creation and transformation is indeed a divine miracle in human flesh. This is exactly what is promised to the faith community if we have ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts open to God's way with us in Jesus.

Our existence here is always the arena of contrasts. The world is joyful and beautiful; it is tragic and filled with terrors. The gift of freedom in authentic worship of a faithful community involves vulnerability, fragility, and, above all, openness to the surprising grace of God. So liturgy as holy play has deeply serious meaning, whether in the children's “innocent” dancing in a procession of gifts, or in the deeply worn paths of confession and forgiveness and hymns of joy in the midst of suffering. Only when our worship knows the range of gratitude and awe, of suffering with others alongside fiesta with God and the gathering with the “saints by the river” will we come to play well. Only when we learn to improvise with the prayer and work of Jesus Christ throughout all the seasons of life will we come to understand liturgy as holy play.

When we bring a sense of gratitude, joy, and delight to the liturgy, the living celebration of the Gospel in word and song reveals, over time, its own intrinsic delight. Yet without a community of persons, with ample biblical texts, a good range of hymns and psalms, knit together with adequate prayer forms, ritual actions, and a balance of Word and sacrament, such holy play does not come to light. We are to be living reminders for one another as well so that over time a community develops a common set of affections for the things of God and a sense of improvising because we know the forms and rhythms of worship well enough. Thus we can never quite predict which dimension of the liturgy—texts, sound, sight, gestures, movement, ritual act—will occasion the sense of free encounter and play before God. On some occasions, all the parts work together. Even when that does not happen, we can be attentive to receiving back, as the psalmist says, “a greater joy,” “a new song.”

Why do we settle for so little? Why do we not perceive and practice the essentials? She was so right, “Didn't we dance today!” And just then I caught sight of the hilaritas of which Christians have spoken and sung since the beginning, and of perhaps why Dante called the final story of God and the world the Divine Comedy.

From “Liturgy as Holy Play” by Don E. SaliersPublished in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, November/December 1994, Vol. 9, No. 6. Copyright © 1994 by The Upper Room.  

1Lyrics from the hymn “For Musicians” by Erik Routley, copyright 1977 by Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

2Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans, by Ada Lane (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1931), pp. 85-106.

3United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), p. 10. 4Hugo Rahner, Man at Play, trans. by Brian Battershaw and Edward Quinn (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967), p. 26.

5Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Play, trans. by Reinhard Ulrich (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 32.