The Aesthetic Dimension in the Liturgy: A Theological Perspective for Literary Historians
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CYNTHIA BOURGEAULT The Aesthetic Dimension in the Liturgy: A Theological Perspective for Literary Historians In 19li5 O.B. Hardison broke important new ground in the study of the origins of the drama with his Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages. Rejecting Karl Young's traditional distinction between Mass and drama, he urged that the Mass itself be considered a form of sacred drama, and that the rise of 'genuine: or representational, drama be seen as the natural outgrowth of tendencies already presentin Christian ritual. In advancing this thesis Hardison made persuasive use of a number of important new resources in the study of liturgy, particularly those to be found in comparative religion and depth psychology, and his work has, understandably, had an enormous impact upon the profession. It has sparked a greatly renewed scholarly interest in the liturgical origins of the drama and has given rise to a whole new brand of interdisciplinary liturgiological scholarship, perhaps best represented in the work of C. Clifford Flanigan.' There is a 'catch: however - a catch which becomes obvious when one ventures a really ciose look at the mainstays of Hardison's argument. First of all, in advancing his thesis that the Mass ought to be considered a sacred drama, he makes extensive use of the ninth-century theolOgian Amalarius of Metz, who even in his day was regarded as a heretic, who had 'by his words, his lying books, his errors, and his fanciful and heretical discussions infected and corrupted almost all the churches in France and many other regions:' Hardison is well aware of this state of affairs, ofcourse (the quotation is taken from his own book), buthe shrugs it off rather lightly, suggesting, in fact, that all the uproar about Amalarius probably proves as much as anything that his work was 'a major success' which 'evidently answered a strongly felt need:3 While this is undoubtedly true, it still seems a rather curious justification for such heavy reliance upon a man whose credentials as an interpreter of Christian liturgy are at best controversial. Hardison's other main line ofargumentation involves an analysis ofthe Mass - and, indeed, of the entire liturgical cycle from Lent through Easter - in terms of Aristotelian dramatic categories. The Mass is regarded as having a III comic" rather than a "tragic" structure because it ... "begins in adversity and ends in peace".'4 On a larger scale, the 'Lenten agon' gives way on Holy Saturday to peripeteia, 'the point at which the action of UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 52. NUMBER 1, FALL 1982 0042-o247182iIOOO-()()()9-0019$ol'50/0 C UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO PRESS 10 CYNTHIA BOURGEAULT history "veers round in the opposite direction",'5 and thence on Easter to theophany: the completion of a 'universal form.,,6 While these terms may be applicable if one confines oneself to a strictly formal description of the liturgy, they reveal a serious disregard for the process by which the liturgy came to be, which is one of accretion and the gradual synthesis of many diverse strata. Ifthere is one lesson which biblical form criticism has driven home, it is that in dealing with sacred texts one must be aware of the origin and intention of the various parts and not construe a formal unity where none in fact exists. In two crucial areas, then, Hardison's work rests upon subtle misrepresentations of the Christian liturgy - misrepresentations which have inevitably been magnified in a culture such as our own in which even an elementary acquaintance with Christian doctrine is becoming more and more of a rarity. For fifteen years now I have had the frustrating experience of watching literary historians who have learned their liturgical theology entirely at the feet of Hardison pass on unquestioned the notion that the Mass is an allegorical drama depicting the earthlylife of Christ - a notion which, as the contemporary liturgiologist Alexander Schmemann emphatically explains, 'is an artificial explanation for anyone who is even slightlyfamiliar with the history, prayers, and structure ofthe liturgy.'7 To my knowledge, no one has as yet attempted a theological evaluation of Hardison's thesis. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is...