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Mourning at Eastertide: Revisiting a Broken Liturgy

by Richard F. Ward

At the time this was written, Richard F. Ward, Ph. D., was Clement-Muehl Associate Professor of Communication Arts, Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT 06511. This article first appeared in Reformed Liturgy and Music 30:2 (1996)

If we make performance do as much work for us as it is capable of doing, we not only reach a fuller understanding of our roles as rhetors and rhetoricians but we may also discover a stronger sense of agency.


Christian liturgy is a ritual performance that takes place in the "eighth day", that is, in a liminal "time outside of time" in relation to the week. Its subject is a set of texts and their ensemble performance in "church". Christian liturgy ritually constructs faith through the agency of performance: speaking words and enacting gestures, displaying clothing, symbols, and a holy book invoke for Christians the "resurrected presence" of their Founder.

Liturgical criticism is "an exercise in judgement that makes value-commitments and value-conflicts overt". As a liturgical critic, I first acknowledge that my own practice reveals the politics, ethics, and poetics of an "insider". I am a scholar/practitioner who is often torn between my academic interest in ritual performance and my responsibilities as a member of the Christian clergy and am myself ordained to perform Christian rites and rituals. Secondly, I declare my aim for revisiting the site of this particular liturgical performance is not simply to assess its conformity to aesthetic categories, though aesthetic enhancement is certainly valuable in criticism of Christian liturgy. It is primarily to discover how performance categories can open and help articulate theological meanings performed as Christian liturgy. It is also, as HopKins suggests above, to determine how performance "can do more work for us" in liturgical criticism.


This review explores a ritual performance where dissonance between "liturgical" time and "real" time was sharp for the assembly of Christians of which I am a member. The Spring Glen United Church of Christ is a congregation of about 471 members in Hamden, Connecticut (just outside of New Haven). Its membership is made up of white, middle to upper class residents of the immediate area. As a congregation within the United Church of Christ, the Spring Glen Church exemplifies "liberal, Protestant" or "old, mainline" ecclesial perspectives. This review revisits the performance of a liturgy in Eastertide by this congregation of Christian believers on a National Day of Mourning. The analytical method it incorporates has been developed by Tom Driver in the Magic of Ritual and refined in his lectures at Union Theological Seminary (New York City) in April, 1995.

Driver defines "performance" as a "particular kind of doing in which the observation of the deed is an essential part of its doing. . . . it is a unity of doing and observing" which can be understood as four interrelated modalities: on one axis lies ritual and theatrical modes, on the other lies confessional and political (or ethical).Christian liturgy is an example of cultural performance grounded in a ritual mode but puts together "types of performance that are sacred and secular, that are religious, aesthetic, and recreational", is "quasi-theatrical" but "is no pretense, but an actual, here and now doing" Following Schechner, Driver braids "efficacious" aspects of ritual performance with "entertaining" elements of "aesthetic" theatre.

Performances in the confessional mode in a ritual context are "primarily concerned with identity and self-disclosure"; in the political (or ethical) mode performance "is oriented more toward affecting the world through direct social and political action." For example, in the structures of Christian liturgy in the Protestant tradition, a "call to confession" or an "affirmation of faith" would represent performance in the confessional mode. The "commissioning" at the end of a liturgical performance is in the spirit of Jesus' directive which concludes the parable of the Good Samaritan, "You go and do the same!" (Luke 10:37), is in the political/ethical mode. Driver's modalities give points of reference for identifying tensive aspects of Christian liturgical performance.


April 23, 1995 was declared by President Bill Clinton to be a National Day of Mourning for the victims of the terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19. Given this context, one point of entry into this liturgy's field of analysis is by way of the "political" modality. This liturgy would take place within a political context, highly charged with awareness of violence in the body politic. What would the relationships be between the performances which defined "National Day of Mourning" with the "confessional" performances of Eastertide? How might the performance of liturgy at the Spring Glen Church in Hamden, Connecticut affect interpretive strategies aimed at the rupture of social order in Oklahoma City?

A second point of entry into the field is by way of the confessional modality. April 23rd was the "Second Sunday of Easter" in the Christian liturgical calendar. Traditionally, worship on this Sunday attempts to extend the flow of celebration and festivity that is released for Christians at Easter. Liturgical performance on this occasion might break formal "norms" in order to incorporate aesthetic elements which move the ritual toward "theatre" in Driver's schema.

Worship planners at Spring Glen assume that the Second Sunday of Easter will be a "low" Sunday, that is, a time when few people will come out "just to go to church". Rev. Bill Hobbs, pastor of the Spring Glen Church, explains his rhetorical strategy for worship for the Second Sunday. "If you want them to come back again the week after Easter, there has to be some motive other than just to come back again to worship . . . one fella said, 'ah, it's a marketing ploy' . . . well, in a sense that is not far off the mark."

Worship planners for the Second Sunday at Easter at Spring Glen United Church of Christ look for ways to heighten the entertainment value of the liturgical performance. Consequently, the Spring Glen Church has invited two professional jazz musicians for three consecutive years to perform a repertorie of "New Orleans-style" hymns in the worship service. As Rev. Kathy Peters, one of the worship leaders on April 23rd noted, "jazz music Sunday" is becoming "something of a tradition at Spring Glen" and is awaited with great anticipation. I overheard one of the members of the congregation say "I have looked forward to this service all year".

The previous performances of New Orleans jazz on the Sunday after Easter created "anti-structure" in juxtaposition to the "normal" structures of liturgical life at Spring Glen. Aspects of liminiality are consciously heightened on "jazz music Sunday". Jazz had created a space in previous years where "different" forms of expressive behaviors were "permitted". One of the musicians stated: "My intent last year was just to go in a raise a ruckus with the white folks." (Jeff Barnhart, the musician I interviewed, is himself white.) Worshippers arrived for worship on April 23, 1995 dressed informally (in contrast to the "finery" of the previous week). Even the clergy were attired in "street clothes" rather than in vestments. On most Sundays, children are excused during the service to attend their own activities. But on this day, the children plan to stay as highly visible participants in the event. Most worshippers remembered that intergenerational "foolishness" had broken out in the form of dancing in the aisles, handclapping to the rhythms, and group improvisational singing.

Both children and adults were expecting an opportunity to "loosen up" and "play" in worship. For Rev. Hobbs this heightened liminoid behavior "is not only okay but healthy to do periodically . . . if you don't nurture that part, it just atrophies and is gone. A serious danger in our liberal tradition is to lose sight of the emotional side of worship."

The bombing in Oklahoma City on April 19 and the announcement of April 23rd as a National Day of Mourning created tension between the impulses to playfully celebrate Resurrection and the need to ritually acknowledge and alleviate the situation in Oklahoma. The bombing on the week after Easter Sunday accentuated a theological motif for Christians: that suffering and death are bound up with resurrection in any symbolic reenactment of God's Incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth.

Signs and images of this ambivalence were at the site for the liturgical performance. Worshippers arrived at church on a National Day of Mourning that was still brightly decorated for Easter. The church itself is in the middle of a neighborhood festooned with Easter decorations. A large cross outside at a church nearby was draped with white fabric, symbolizing "Resurrection" while the local paper ran pictures of rescuers working around the clock to recover the dead in the rubble of the bombed building.

As I entered the sanctuary, recognized the musicians, and read the published bulletin, I realized that this was going to be "jazz music Sunday". This appeared to be a crisis for the liturgical order of the day. The "political" situation demanded that "celebration" move toward "lament" in the confessional mode. It seemed "unChristian" to go ahead with the plan to "play" with Resurrection themes when such a tragedy had occurred. Would the proposed order of worship become the ritual pathway we would follow through this performance crisis? Could it still tighten Schechner's "efficacy/entertainment" braid in a way we worshippers needed? Or would some other plan have to be invented and improvised? The Preacher in Ecclesiastes observes that there is a "time for everything" (3:1-8). But what time would it be on this April 23, 1995 at Spring Glen? Would it be a time to mourn or a time to laugh? A time to weep or a time to dance? How could the assembly set the events of the previous week alongside the ritual experience of Resurrection in its liturgical performance? I remember fearing that I might have to excuse myself because I could not imagine committing my body to the handclapping, dancing and participatory singing that typically characterized worship behavior on "jazz music Sunday". As it turned out, I came to a deeper understanding of the structural polarities and theological paradoxes that communicate "faith" in any efficacious performance of Christian liturgy.


The communicative patterns revealed in any performance of Christian liturgy are dialectical in character. It does not move along a straight line from "idea" to "assent" in the congregation. Rev. Bill Hobbs explains the structural meaning of worship: "The things that are going on all around you need to find their way into worship. (Worship becomes) a way of integrating what happens to us in life generally with our worship life of God the Almighty." This then is the primary intention for communication in worship: to juxtapose the structures of liturgy and the structures of "ordinary" life to create brokenness and then re/membrance. It is to create a space for Jesus' self-presentation to worshippers, not to transmit an abstract body of "Christian doctrine". Liturgy is not simply "showing and telling" the ideological content of theology; it is a "doing" of new things in relation to old ones. Christian liturgy, like other forms of sacred rituals, is "an efficacious performance that invokes the presence and action of powers which, without the ritual, would not be present or active at that time and place." The power and presence Protestant Christians anticipate is that of "Christ, walking through the congregation as the Word." The affect of this Presence is interpreted by Christians as God's graceful self-disclosure, in other words, as an opportunity for God to act "confessionally" in the sociopolitical context of ritual.

The pull of this (order of worship) against that (structures of everyday life) in an efficacious liturgical performance open "holes in the fabric of things, through which life-giving power flows into the world." Christians perform proscribed and improvised gestures, stand to speak and sit in silence, read and speak words, touch one another, eat, drink and sing as "signs of grace" which "prepare the Way of the Lord" and then expect transformation "make (his) paths straight!"(Mark 1:3).

All ritualized performances are subject to the power of death. On one hand, ritualizing behaviors can lead to the actual death of a sacrificial victim and thus can become the performance of "something absolute" and therefore destroying tensiveness. Tom Driver elaborates, "In ritual slaying, the polarity in what Schechner calls the 'efficacy/entertainment dyad' seems to collapse: The ultimate entertainment (the drama of killing) has also the greatest efficacity (that the victim is really and truly slain, an irrevocable act)." On the other hand, the efficacy of rituals can themselves be "killed" by routinization or maintenance of status quo. Death occurs for sacred rituals when the "hole closes up and no power can come through."

Christian liturgy recognizes tendencies toward death dealing in ritual behavior by looking in two directions at once. First, it sees at one end an irrevocable act of "god killing" in the political execution of "God's Son". It identifies all victims of social and political violence with "crucifixion". Remembrance and symbolic reenactment of this event include the display of a Crucifix and a ritual dismemberment and consumption of the "Body and Blood of Christ". Christians confess complicity in "god killing" as "sin" and perform symbolic identification with the perpetrators through word and gesture. They aim for "communion" by creating ritual spaces for reconciliation with the Spirit of God. The Spirit which animated God's Son is released in "Resurrection" and resumes a ministry of personal and social transformation "in Jesus' name" through believers' performance of the faith in conjoining arenas of "worship" and "everyday life".

The Sacrament of Eucharist becomes a ritual contra ritual in that it brings to a close a cultic tradition of animal sacrifice for the expiation of sins. "As it is, he (Christ) has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Hebrews 9:26b, NRSV). Though Christians take varying positions on its theological meaning, the ritual killing of an innocent victim who is intimately identified with God is deeply lodged in its memory and practice. "Killing a victim" is no longer theologically "necessary" for the entry of God into the mundane. However, the remembrance and reenactment of a political killing in historical time is a central evocative element in liturgical time.

In the Protestant church, and especially at Spring Glen, the Sacrament of Eucharist does not occupy the place that a Service of the Word does. What lies at the center of the usual liturgical performance is "sermon" or "message". Even when the sacramental meal is not performed, however, the pulpit is in a relationship to the table. The words of any sermon point to the "killing" recalled at the table and, like bread and wine, are themselves "powerful things" which are "not mere brief explanations" but are "symbols, gathering places of multilayered meaning and means to participate in that meaning."

Secondly, Christian liturgy recognizes the power of ritual to "kill" the Spirit of the Holy God. It bears the memory of God's voice speaking through the prophet Amos: "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies" (5:21). Christian liturgical performance is infused with a "spirit of protest against identifying the truth of God with any finite form." It uses "brokenness" as a thematic motif in speaking of a "holy" God who is radically other than festival, solemn assembly, ceremony or ritual performance. Some Christian theologies admit to the possibility that the Holy Spirit might indeed be "absent" in some liturgical performances.

The central paradox of Christian liturgy is that it uses ordinary things (bread, wine, books, cloth, fire, and water) to speak of the Holy. Yet it understands that these things become "broken" in the presence of the "Holy". It affirms both the transcendence and immanence of God by using these "ordinary-things-become-holy" in performance. A bombed building in Oklahoma City still holding bodies of innocent victims of violence is an agonizing and literal image for the theological landscape for any liturgical performance. Christians always stand in the "rubble" of everyday experiences of violence and use broken words, traditions, symbols, myths, and stories to invoke the Presence of God.


"New Orleans jazz" is a style of musical performance suited for the theological juxtapositions of Eastertide. For its originators, jazz in performance meant liberation of soul and body. Not only was it a means for African-Americans to augment subsistance incomes but it provided "unschooled" musicians a way to "express themselves in a new way" by creating a "skeletal, gutty sound . . . that came from their hearts."

Yet jazz, like liturgy, also acknowledges the power of death. A funeral was a significant site for cultivating traditions of jazz performance. The musical interpretation of an individual's death conjoined lament and rejoicing; the progression of the jazz funeral rhythmically retains the theological motif of "suffering death/resurrection." Jeff Barnhart, one of the musicians who performed in the service at Spring Glen, described the basic shape of a jazz funeral as follows: "They (the performers) would play an old hymn such as 'Just a Closer Walk with Thee' in the procession to the graveside. And as soon as the body was lowered into the ground, all hell broke loose and they'd have a good time!" Jazz, he explained, provided mourners with a way of saying "he's gone, she's gone . . . but we loved the experience we had with them, let's celebrate each other now." Jazz is the performance of resistance at different levels: it resists formal boundaries of "schooling" in favor of improvisational expression but also resists the final collapse of form that is death.


The question of when Christian worship begins is theologically complex. Does it "begin" with the first utterances and gestures which move worshippers toward the "wholly other" or does it "begin" when the Holy breaks into the mundane? Christian worship "begins" in at least two ways. Liturgically, it begins with the gathering of those who will invoke, address, and commune, and finally "depart in peace" through a pattern of behaviors that characterize their performance practice. Theologically, it "begins" with the arrival of "the Spirit" whose power and presence flow through the "holes" to meet the worshipper.

"Meeting" is a potent term in the social and liturgical life of the United Church of Christ. Church buildings are often called "meeting houses". In its traditional order of worship, the interiority of "silent meditation during the prelude" meets the public acknowledgement of one another's presence in "greeting and announcements". Awareness of the Holy (Adoration) meets awareness of sin (confession); oral and silent prayers of confession meet assurances of pardon and passing gestures of "peace" within the assembly; solo performances of biblical texts and a sermon meet ensemble performances of "affirmations of faith"; the recitation of a traditional prayer (the Lord's Prayer) meets improvised "prayers of the people"; the giving of gifts to those outside of the assembly (offering) is met by leaving the assembly itself (commission and benediction) and returning to the structures of everyday existence. "Service" in the confessional mode meets "service" in the political/ethical mode.

The liturgical performance in the meeting house at Spring Glen is framed by the tolling of a bell which tells those within and outside the worship space "what time it is". Throughout the order, silence interplays with group prayer and singing. Worship flows through this dialectical pattern and anticipates a meeting between God and Humankind. It awaits a "breaking and entering" by the Holy who "comes like a thief in the night"(Mt. 24:43) but brings "gifts of Grace". Participants might encounter Divine Presence at any number of meeting places within the order or they might not encounter It at all. Christian worship holds open the possibility that the Spirit of the Risen Lord will arrive and affect transformation within one's own interiority but also in social and political life through media of grace.

I want to revisit two particular moments of the Spirit's "breaking and entering" in the order of worship on April 23. I fully acknowledge that for others, other such moments might have happened. Mary Frances HopKins has written recently that "not everyone experiencing the performance will construe the site in the same way." Indeed, any fabric of worship can always be imagined in liturgical criticism as either "riddled" with holes or, conversely, as a seamless form, unperforated by Divine Presence. What I will look at are two places where "breaks" occurred in the flow of worship which redirected it from "entertainment" to "efficacy".


Richard Schechner uses "transformance" to describe how ritual performances "make happen what they celebrate." What Christian liturgy awaits and celebrates, particularly at Eastertide, is the Presence of a "Holy Spirit" who sustained and reanimated the life, ministry and memory of the Crucified One. The Spirit comes in and through the performance of words and actions, discloses Itself as "Presence". In this case, a moment of inbreaking occurred during "greeting and announcements". This is normally a space reserved in the order where information is shared about the mundane affairs of the community. Since it preceeds the "call to worship", it anticipates, but does not affect, the invocation of the Spirit.

That preparatory moment shifted from profane to sacred ground on this occasion. As information was being shared by different speakers in the assembly, one gentleman raised his hand to be recognized by the worship leader. When it was his turn to speak, he began by reminding us that this was a Day of Mourning and that we should not proceed with the worship without remembering the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. His speech was performative in a "political" mode. In a formal and carefully measured tone, he reminded us of our obligation to think beyond the celebratory purpose of our gathering and move toward empathy with the victims and their families. Then, as he spoke, his voice suddenly broke with emotion and he was not able to continue speaking. His performance fulfilled a traditional "confessional" function of prayer. "Like speech in general, prayer may on occasion have not only, and not mainly, the function of conveying information, but rather that of establishing or consolidating relationship through intensifying the 'presence' of one being to another."

Rev. Kathy Peters who was leading worship at that time informed the assembly that the speaker and his wife had once lived in Oklahoma and were personally acquainted with some who had been victimized in the blast. In that critical period of heightened and potent reflexivity, a move toward a new "reality" began and reached its climax in the "message in music". One worshipper noted that "he could see a change in the faces" of people sitting around him. We were on a threshold of some new mode of behavior, a "liminal, fluid mid-point"that would initiate "new" ways of speaking and acting confessionally within and against the proscribed "order of worship". Jeff Barnhart describes how a shift from theatre/entertainment toward ritual/efficacy occurred in his own performance approach. "Once I realized what was happening I said 'look, this is an opportunity to do something more important than provide variety, or just provide everybody with a chance to let loose, there is more import here'". I had to improvise a whole new approach."

In this incidence, a broken human voice was an avenue of the Spirit to "break" into an order and thereby establish a new meaning for the liturgical performance. The speaker's impromptu utterance and display of grief tightened the performance braid between "jazz music Sunday" and "National Day of Mourning". It was a new beginning. As Barnhart noted: "It set the stage perfectly. It was a genuine heartfelt reaction and emotion which then was the opening act" of a transformance. The space of the "eighth day" was now made "safe" for displaying emotions of "lament" in relation to "thanksgiving". It was a moment where the liturgical form was punctuated and became performance of resistance instead of preservation.

On the one side the flow of performance would resist "celebration" by remembering the victims of violence. On the other, it would resist the power of "death" by placing the accent on "Resurrected Presence". Our roles in performance began to change. From a local congregation celebrating its own traditions of worship after Easter, we became Christians who were theologically coping with a tragic act of violence in our global community.


As powerful as that moment of transformance was, it was a precarious one in the life of the liturgy. From here the performance could either move toward "death" by "killing the spirit", closing up the hole, and therefore preserving the integrity of the form. Or, it could resist "death" by moving toward a form of playfulness which bore the the weight of tragic images.

Like the progression in the jazz funeral, resistance to death was performed by acknowledging the meaningfulness of human emotional expression in speech and song. In the "Call to Worship" which immediately followed the break in the liturgical fabric, Pastor Hobbs stated this theme: "Wearing our emotions closer to the surface than usual, and with no disrespect for those who can only weep, we reach out in song and motion to acclaim that God is good, that God is for us, and that God can move us to embrace life and engage in deeds of kindness". This thematic through-line extended in the other public utterances in the liturgy. In the "Call to Confession and Unison Prayer", Hobbs read: "We are so cautious about expressing our love for you, O God, that we are in danger of stifling it. We know it in our heads, but we resist letting it move our emotions". And finally in the sermon, he warned against "locking out our emotions" in trying to reach for the "deeper truths that defy reasonable expression". Hobbs words did not simply talk about emotion they became vehicles for efficacious emotional expression.

In the songs that were selected for performance as a "message in music", the tempo moved from a slow rendition of "Amazing Grace", through a solemn "His Eye is On the Sparrow" and into a more upbeat improvisation on "Open Up Those Pearly Gates" and "When the Saints Go Marchin' In". Clearly the "Saints" was the emotional climax of the service as members of the congregation freely jumped up from their seats and literally danced in the aisles. A movement that began as an awkward, impromptu speech in a voice broken with emotion steadily flowed toward a climax as an ensemble performance of dancing, singing, and handclapping. It was a potent recreation of a theological construct: death wedded to resurrection.

Another way resistance to death was performed was through the use of traditional verbal and musical materials to address the mournful matters of the day. Silent texts that exist as words on a page or musical score can be described as "dead" in relation to speech. But when transposed for liturgical performance, "the Spirit gives life" to texts (2 Cor.3:6b) as they "speak" in new ways. Hobbs declared, for example, that his intention for his sermon shifted once he heard that President Clinton had named the day as a National Day of Mourning:

I had an opportunity. The intention was to introduce the particular part of the service. Before (the day was declared as Day of Mourning) I thought it was a good chance to go back again and say something about the evolution of New Orleans jazz. But when I looked at the Gospel for the day (John 20:19-31), it became very clear to me that here is a story, a story of Jesus' appearance to the disciples when they were in hiding after the Resurrection . . . this was a real opportunity to say something about that story and about the faith which is built around people who were fearful, were skeptical, and into the midst of them, somehow, in a way that was ultimately moving, comes the presence of Jesus through locked doors and barriers of skepticism, cynicism, and doubt, all of these things that prevent ourselves from being God's people.

Hobbs' sermon became a site where listeners could identify with some of the more shadowy aspects of faith. By acknowledging the situation of the biblical characters, he created the possibility for listeners to identify their own confusion and skepticism in the wake of a violent act. At the same time, however, the traditional story of Jesus' appearance to "Doubting" Thomas, creates the possibility for a new interpretation of the listeners' own situation. "Yet Jesus appeared to his frightened disciples mysteriously, through locked doors and thick walls and presented himself, offering encouragement."

In the same way, attending to the circumstances changed the way the musicians "used" their traditional material. Their performance of such traditional hymns as "Just a Closer Walk With Thee", "Blessed Assurance", "Amazing Grace" "His Eye is on The Sparrow", "Open Up Those Pearly Gates", and "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" had "a lot more soul" and made them "realize how important this music is" to others and to themselves. For Barnhart, having to keep the outbreak of violence in Oklahoma City before him helped keep him "from just going through the motions. It stripped us from what was too familiar and forced us to deal with things but in a joyful way. I felt like the 'preacher' for the day."

Christian liturgy in performance is a web of communicative practice that seeks brokenness of form and the tensive juxtaposition of the "ordinary" with the "holy". Liturgical criticism recalls points where the ritual fabric of worship is punctured by that which cannot be contained by ritual forms. The service at Spring Glen on the Second Sunday of Easter revealed how it is that liturgy aims to communicate. Every liturgy is precariously situated between the Spirit which gives life and the death that comes from maintaining integrity of form. Jazz music Sunday might have simply become "entertainment" on a "low" Sunday and not provided a means of ritually acknowledging the confusion, grief, and anguish of worshippers. Yet even a liturgical form designed to contain jazz broke open with an impromptu performance by a speaker in the congregation, and the performance flow moved toward efficacy.

Perhaps the experience is best summed up by one worshipper who, upon departing from the worship space, exclaimed: "Something happened here today!"


Richard Finley Ward is the Clement-Muehl Associate Professor of Communication Arts in the Divinity School of Yale University.



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