Liturgy in a time of terror

Cambodian wedding ceremonies are highly ritualised affairs, predictable in their parts. But they are also responsive to cultural change. In one of the signs of mutual service, for example, the bride used to peel a banana and offer it to her husband. More commonly now, she lights his cigarette. The video and its preparation, too, are now integral to the ritual.

Liturgy is like that. When it is alive, it is a drama with a given shape, but one that is responsive to the culture and conditions in which it is celebrated. Where its fixed and unalterable character is stressed and its authenticity is identified with words and actions fixed in their detail, it is paradoxically most vulnerable to infection by its cultural environment.

The responsiveness of ritual to culture is evident in an Australia increasingly shaped by fear of terror. Secular liturgies of travel and sport are now incomplete without uniformed security that addresses any deviant voice or action, warnings to be alert to unattended luggage and suspicious behaviour. Police warn off artists who take photos of industrial sites. Fear and anxiety express themselves in ritual that mimics menace, asserts boundaries between the safe and the suspect, privileges identity over difference, and promises safety to those who graze within the boundaries.

The rituals of security challenge Christian liturgy. In the drama of the Eucharist the participants identify with a man who chose to live insecurely, was tortured and killed in a demonstration of state terror, and was raised from the dead in mockery of such terrors. Through the enactment of his death, people are brought into solidarity with God and with one another, particularly with those excluded in the name of security. The liturgy does not promise security but freedom from the fear of death.

You would not want to alter the starkness and universal significance of that drama. It comprehensively judges the rituals of security. But at a time of insecurity, liturgy itself can become a focus of anxiety. This infection by culture can be seen when the authenticity of liturgy is judged by the exact and unvarying repetition of each word and action as prescribed. When, in the name of opposition to the prevailing culture, the fear of ecclesiastical disapproval dominates the shaping of liturgy, the celebration of liturgy mimics the culture.

In a time of terror, daily life and liturgy alike demand boldness. Twenty years ago, many Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees died when their camps were shelled. The survivors were relocated in an inhospitable part of Thailand. It was Christmas time. A French priest who had walked with the refugees celebrated the Christmas liturgy on a piece of blue plastic stretched over the earth. He used makeshift cups and plates, wore no vestments except the Cambodian scarf. He began in tears, saying, ‘Today we share the utter poverty of Christ.’ He then invited them to chant the prayer for forgiveness.

Celebrated with such fidelity and freedom, liturgy has power to drive out fear. 

Andrew Hamilton sj writes regularly for Eureka Street.



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