Acting Out the Passion Narrative

And More on Commemorations

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: It has been requested at our parish to have a Passion play in lieu of or as part of the Good Friday Passion narrative. The priest could read the part of Jesus, but each different person in the narrative would be represented and actually played out by a different “actor” during the narrative. Is this permissible on Good Friday? Our pastor has not found anything to support or reject this, and his diocesan sources were not specific to permit or deny that this take place. — J.Z., Columbia, South Carolina

A: The reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday and Good Friday allow for certain dramatic elements while still falling far short of acting. The readers or cantors retain the traditional sobriety of the rite and avoid facial expressions and gestures.

The Congregation for Divine Worship’s 1988 circular letter on the celebration of these feasts says the following:

“64. The order for the celebration of the Lord’s passion (the liturgy of the word, the adoration of the cross, and Holy Communion) that stems from an ancient tradition of the Church should be observed faithfully and religiously and may not be changed by anyone on his own initiative.

“66. The readings are to be read in their entirety. The responsorial psalm and the chant before the gospel are to be sung in the usual manner. The narrative of the Lord’s passion according to John is sung or read in the way prescribed for the previous Sunday (cf. n. 33). After the reading of the passion, a homily should be given, at the end of which the faithful may be invited to spend a short time in meditation.”

The above-mentioned No. 33 describes the reading as follows:

“33. The passion narrative occupies a special place. It should be sung or read in the traditional way, that is, by three persons who take the parts of Christ, the narrator and the people. The passion is proclaimed by deacons or priests, or by lay readers. In the latter case, the part of Christ should be reserved to the priest.

“The proclamation of the passion should be without candles and incense, the greeting and the signs of the cross are omitted; only a deacon asks for the blessing, as he does before the Gospel.”

Thus, these readings may be rendered using three readers, or cantors, each taking the part of specific characters. One reader takes the role of narrator, another, usually the priest, speaks the words of Our Lord, and another all of the other characters.

The choir or even the assembly may be added to undertake the part of the multitude or when several Gospel characters speak at once.

The “dramatic” and spiritual effect on the assembly when it is they, and not just a reader, who cry out, “Crucify him,” can be quite moving and might bring out more clearly the responsibility of each one’s personal sinfulness for Our Lord’s passion.

At the Vatican, the Passion on Palm Sunday has been sung, for several years now, in Italian, by three deacons and a choir. The deacons maintain a sober tone although with slight variations for each personage. The choir sings the part of the multitude in polyphony.

On Good Friday the same process is followed but using the traditional Latin chants with the Sistine Choir doing the solemn polyphony. In both cases the Passion lasts about 50 minutes.

This system of dividing up the readings into parts is also sometimes allowed for Masses with children if such a process facilitates comprehension (see No. 47 of the Directory for Masses with Children).

However, this is a far cry from acting out the Passion, which would most likely have the opposite effect of that desired by the liturgical books. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal touches upon this subject in No. 38 regarding “The Vocal Expression of the Different Texts”:

“In texts that are to be spoken in a loud and clear voice, whether by the priest or the deacon, or by the lector, or by all, the tone of voice should correspond to the genre of the text itself, that is, depending upon whether it is a reading, a prayer, a commentary, an acclamation, or a sung text; the tone should also be suited to the form of celebration and to the solemnity of the gathering. Consideration should also be given to the idiom of different languages and the culture of different peoples.

“In the rubrics and in the norms that follow, words such as ‘say’ and ‘proclaim’ are to be understood of both singing and reciting, according to the principles just stated above.”

Thus, the text refers above all to tone of voice and makes no mention of accompanying a reading with facial expressions or gestures. This would be in conformity with the traditional sobriety of the Roman rite and with the ministerial nature of such services as reading.

The fundamental criterion is, I believe, that of service to God’s word. The task of the lector is to bring out and proclaim the sense of the divine message to the best of his or her ability while avoiding drawing attention to the person doing the reading either by dress or manner.

There is, also, perhaps some danger of a reader imposing his or her interpretation of the emotions concealed in the passage rather than allowing God’s word to speak heart-to-heart to each member of the assembly.

Hence, some variation in intonation is desirable in order to clarify the sense of the text, such as to distinguish a question from an admonition, or a cry for mercy from its granting.

Using an unvarying deadpan tone or monotonous drawl for every passage is a disservice to God’s word and to the assembly. But any hint of acting, whether by facial expressions, gestures, changing intonation or voices for different characters, should be avoided as they tend to draw attention away from the text and toward the reader.

The traditional Latin tones for singing the readings could suggest a model for reading the sacred texts, or even compose new vernacular tones for singing the Scripture as has been successfully achieved in some languages.

Singing the texts, at least on solemn occasions, reminds us that this is no ordinary text but God’s word to us. It also fixes the attention very much on the word itself.

In 2005 a reader offered the following valuable suggestion based on experience, which I think is worthwhile repeating:

“When teaching lectors and seminarians, I have found it useful to tell them to think of themselves as ‘being on the radio’ rather than ‘performing on TV.’ This causes them to think how best to use their voice to proclaim the word of the Lord, undistracted by ‘looking at the congregation, facial movements, gestures, etc. This approach allows the reader to take account of the listeners, making as clear as possible the sense of the text in front of them — when God is speaking via their mouth. It also allows them to realize that the ‘spoken word’ they speak is God’s word alive and so the most important thing. It also avoids the temptation to ‘dramatize the text.'”

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Follow-up: Antiphons of Commemorations

Pursuant to our Feb. 24 piece on Antiphons and commemorations a reader from St. Louis, Missouri, made the following observation:

“I agree on all points with your answers in ‘Antiphons of Commemorations.’ I did want to bring to your attention a strange anomaly, which I think was probably an oversight on the part of the compilers of the Liturgia Horarum, but which does lend weight to the idea that these optional commemorations are sometimes given undue emphasis. The current breviary does give antiphons and collects on Dec. 29 and 31 for St. Thomas Becket and St. Sylvester I, respectively, so that they may be liturgically commemorated at vespers on those days in the octave of the Nativity. However, for the three feasts which occur during the same octave, no commemoration
is allowed at vespers (Dec. 26, 27 and 28, for St. Stephen, St. John and the Holy Innocents). This seems very strange.”

At first it would appear to be an anomaly, considering that the octaves of Easter and Christmas usually exclude all other celebrations except, in the case of Christmas, those traditionally associated with Christmastide mentioned by our reader.

However, it is also curious that, rather than the unspecified antiphons given for before the closing prayer for the Lenten celebrations, the breviary offers proper Benedictus and Magnificat antiphons for St. Thomas Becket and Benedictus antiphon for St. Sylvester as the vespers will be that of the solemnity of the Mother of God.

I can only suppose that the reasoning behind this is the following. Unlike Easter, the Christmas octave is not a movable feast and, therefore, if the general criteria were applied, then these saints could never be celebrated at all. Since there are probably countries and places that have a pastoral interest in celebrating these feast days, then they retained their traditional liturgical elements. It remains true, however, that unlike the other three saints days mentioned by our reader, these are always optional and not obligatory in the universal Church and are not therefore of a higher character.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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