What Happens When the Liturgy Becomes a Show?

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What Happens When the Liturgy Becomes a Show?

Today, something occurred that I’d like to share. As usual, I played piano for the morning Mass, but this time I chose to sing along. Why? Specifically because I knew there was a part of the song that the congregation always sang incorrectly. As I played and sang, they added extra rests not included in my sheet music. I continued to sing it correctly through all four verses. After the first two, I noticed they stopped at the point of the rest and listened to me sing.

Interestingly, after Mass, a parishioner approached me, claiming I sang that section wrong. Even after showing her the half rest (not a full rest) in the music, she disagreed. Understanding their familiarity with singing it differently, I later messaged her: “I’m not sure I can convince you, Eda, but try listening to this without singing. You might find I did it correctly.” I sent her a video of a choir performing it properly.

Her response:

“Just finished listening. Didn’t realize. It’s a beautiful song and choir with beautiful voices; I’m sure you are correct. The question is: Do we follow the timing or adjust a little for the parishioners? I don’t know the answer. The fact is we enjoyed singing with you playing the piano.”

This prompted some serious questions that I encourage you to consider: What is the purpose of music in the liturgy? If music is prayer, is it enough to have one person pray for the whole community? Shouldn’t participation be an essential component of the liturgy? Most importantly, what changes when one person performs for the community instead of leading it?

One thing is certain: when an individual performs for the community, the dynamic shifts from communal participation to a show. Parishioners attend music concerts, piano recitals, and opera performances. What happens afterward? People rate these shows and decide whether to return. They compare them to similar performances, sometimes opting for “better” ones. I strongly believe this is exactly what occurs when one person performs for the congregation instead of leading them. People rate the music as good or bad, compare it to music in nearby parishes, and sometimes drive far for these “better shows.” Eventually, such people might end up in concert halls or piano recitals.

This rating doesn’t occur when the congregation participates and sings along. If Mass is an enactment of what we’ll do in heaven forever (worship God), it seems clear that merely attending isn’t enough – we need to participate. In heaven, we won’t just watch others worship; we’ll join in because it brings joy and fulfillment. I suggest that people miss the liturgy’s meaning when they don’t take part. More importantly, they miss the joy and fulfillment that comes from such worship. My point is that in our attempt to perfect the liturgy, we’ve forgotten the ultimate perfection: communion.

You might ask if we should even have choir sections in our churches. That’s exactly what I wondered. From experience, once people see a choir, they often don’t bother singing, assuming the choir will do it right. I’ve witnessed people watching the choir sing, then applauding at the end of Mass – behaviors typical of shows or recitals. I’ve often felt odd singing from the congregation because no one around me sings; they just listen to the choir. The Mass doesn’t transform the congregation if they don’t participate, making it more of a pleasurable experience similar to a show. We must resist the temptation to make Mass a show because it isn’t one, at least not in the ordinary sense.

What happens when Mass becomes a show? People rate it and decide whether to return, or they compare it to similar “shows.”

A Few More Questions:

  • Should we make the liturgy chaotic by letting the congregation sing? I suggest that in the “chaos” of 100 voices worshipping God lies real harmony – not of beauty, but of communion. But in this communion lies the real beauty.
  • How can we address the choir issue? I propose eliminating choir sections in churches. Let choristers spread throughout the pews, encouraging those around them to join in singing. Eventually, everyone would sing because there’s no designated group to do it for them. A pianist or organist can provide the tempo and flow of the song.
  • Isn’t something wrong when Christians follow one priest around, switching parishes when the priest is moved? Should Mass focus our attention on Christ or on a priest? I suggest the show dynamic is at work again in these cases.

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