Play Along

How medieval Christmas plays can illuminate what’s missing in your holiday.

I have always loved the medieval Mystery plays. These are not staged whodunnits but rather acted out scenes of biblical history, ancient representations of “mystery” in the sense of “miracle.” No one is quite sure how they began. But out of the tumult of the “dark ages” there appear these gloriously amateur productions, with all the common people of the town making their brilliantly clumsy effort at enacting the redemption story. Each guild was given a scene to bring to life, from Adam and Eve to the end of time.  Like children in a pageant, they tumbled joyfully out into the streets with wooden creaking wagons for a stage, clad in home-made costumes. They had relatively unrehearsed acting and suspicious “special effects.”

In the surviving texts of this ordained foolery there are mostly jangling couplets of Middle English, glued together badly like paper chains. Yet in the midst of this vernacular, unexpected phrases of Latin surge up like cathedral buttresses. It was the peasants that performed these pieces, not the priests – the peasants who took on the roles of Pharaoh and Herod, of the Virgin and Christ.  Yet in the midst of their ramshackle worship and their bad rhymes, the cobbler or the tinker would suddenly speak these words of the church liturgy, written in, I suppose, to remind that the subject was sacred. Play Shepherds greet each other with a “benedicte,” candlemakers dressed as Angels spout a “gloria” in Latin well above their pay grade.

The play of the Last Judgment ends with the Latin phrase “Te Deum,” inviting the audience to end the pageant with singing a well-known if imperfectly understood hymn. I guess that is something that alarms Protestants like me and gets us fired up about the Reformation  – the idea of singing praises that we don’t understand frightens us. We dismiss things learned by rote as lacking value.  But to me there is something beautiful about these unwashed, uneducated people joining in on their cue with the sanctified speech. There is something significant about speaking “over your head,” about words and actions that are sacred above and beyond your own understanding of them. There is something about knowing your part in the play.

Our culture idolizes authenticity. To be sure, there is value in refusing to trust authorities and systems and mere repetition.  There is no 12-step plan to salvation, and repeating an “I’m sorry” often enough doesn’t make you “mean it.”  Yet our emphasis on intuition, on the heart and the individual, has left us unable to cope with the times when we don’t “feel” it. At the worst, like me, you might be so afraid of pretense that you feel paralyzed to act at all.  What happens if I take communion with that wrong attitude described in Scripture? What if I am just clanging symbols every time I speak because I have not love?

This year, like every year, I feel radically unprepared to transition from Advent to Christmas. Advent is supposed to prepare, but my heart is choked with business and doubt, the soil seemingly too hardened for the Incarnational seed. I haven’t learned my lines, and I am afraid to play the part of worshipper when my soul seems a thousand miles from Bethlehem.

But when I fear my own lack of feeling, I remember those medievaIs, earning their participation points. I think of a butcher playing a part too important and too sacred for his coarse voice and mediocre acting. I think of all of the peasants crammed onto the dirty cobblestones, joining in Latin song not because they understood it or felt led to do it, but simply because they recognized their cue. They knew the necessity of participating – which is sometimes pretending.

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity reminds that although we sometimes “act” before we feel, that does not mean it is disingenuous:

What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretence is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing. When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grownups—playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits so that the pretense of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest.

Lewis and the medievals understood what we often miss in modern culture: to pretend, to participate, often makes us into what we long for. Though it may start as duty or dread or even pretense, we often find ourselves drawn in and carried away. Fantasy shapes reality. If we tarry ‘till we’re better, if we wait until we have the skill, or understanding or feeling, we shall never come at all.

I understand the hesitation. We’re not a culture comfortable with spontaneous communal singing. Apart from “Happy Birthday,” the Pledge of Allegiance, and “Amazing Grace,” there is little that we know enough in common to join in.  Even then, if called upon to participate, we feel awkward, uncertain, worried about our pitch and our tone. What is everyone else doing? What happens if we drop a word? We would certainly never belt out sounds we did not perfectly understand. But that is because we don’t see ourselves as an essential part of the drama. And yet we must.

The gospel is at its core a call to participate, to enter into that which we do not fully understand.  The Fall has made us proud, isolated, fearful.  Christ makes us children, gives us parts. In an undervalued Christmas carol, Jesus invites his followers to join his lifestyle, not as a work of drudgery, but as a dance and a play –

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day

          I would my true love did so chance

          To see the legend of my play,

          To call my true love to my dance.

Even the cross is an invitation of great cost to great joy:

There issues forth both water and blood,

          To call my true love to my dance.

What is Christmas after all but an invitation to speak the words of love we barely understand? To feign the joy of the angels so that we are brought up among them, even if is with our fraying rope-and-wheel contraptions? It is a drama both solemn and joyful, an act for which we are completely ill-equipped and yet shaped for all of our lives. Play. In the words of Wendell Berry, “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” Shuffle off self-consciousness, speak the words you are given, and play the part until it becomes your heart’s desire. Dance.

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