Acting Out the Passion Narrative

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Acting Out the Passion Narrative

By Father Edward McNamara, LC

ROME, 24 March 2015 (ZENIT)
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.'"

* * *

Follow-up: Acting Out the Passion Narrative [04-07-2015]

Pursuant to our March 24 piece on the Passion narrative, an attentive reader, who is also a liturgist, sent me in the following observation:

"In addition to the points that you listed in your column on March 24 regarding acting out the Passion narrative, you missed one crucial resource that would have answered the question asked. The introduction of the Lectionary for Masses with Children No. 52 reads: 'Plays within the Liturgy of the Word: 52. The Mass is not an historical re-enactment of the events of salvation history and care should be taken not to give the impression that the Liturgy of the Word is a play. This is not to say that dramatic elements may not be used, e.g., the readings may at times be divided into parts distributed among the children. However, the use of costumes, etc. is more appropriate in the context of other celebrations or services. Care should be taken especially at Christmas and during Holy Week and the Easter Triduum not to stage the various liturgies as plays. The Christmas Mass should not be presented as a birthday party for Jesus, nor should secular notions of Santa Claus be introduced into the Christmas liturgy.'"

I am most grateful to our reader for sending me in this text, which further strengthens the original reply.

Even though this introduction to the childrens lectionary has legal force only within the United States, it is based on sound liturgical principles and develops norms which are already found in the Directory of Children's Masses issued by the Holy See.It is obvious that the composition of such childrens lectionaries can only be done by each bishops' conference, as it requires adaptations that are specific to the pastoral requirements of each country.

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