Worship As Play
Dr. James R. Hart, President
Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies
Aristotle claimed that the supremely important activities are the most useless because they exist precisely for their own sake and not for a greater external end. The worship of God is, therefore, the most useless and supremely important thing we can do. Seeking to understand Christian worship, thus, is a most critical endeavor.
In his great book The Spirit of the Liturgy, twentieth-century theologian Romano Guardini equated worship, or in his writing, the liturgy, with play.
Wait–play? Guardini wrote this about the liturgy, “[In the liturgy] man, with the aid of grace, is given the opportunity of realizing his fundamental essence, of really becoming that which according to his divine destiny he should be and longs to be, a child of God. . . . [The life of the liturgy] speaks measuredly and melodiously; it employs formal, rhythmic gestures, it is clothed in colors and garments foreign to everyday life. . . . It is in the highest sense the life of a child in which everything is picture, melody, and song.” Beauty, art, and worship go hand-in-hand.
Guardini goes on to write, “[The liturgy] has one thing in common with the play of a child and the life of art—it has no purpose, but is full of profound meaning. It is not work, but play. To be at play, or to fashion a work of art in God’s sight—not to create but to exist—such is the essence of the liturgy.”
We tend to think of play as trivial and work as serious. However, it’s the exact opposite: play is serious stuff, more serious than work. Why? Work is something we do for the sake of something else, for a higher purpose. It is subordinate to an end beyond itself. However, play is something we do for no purpose outside itself. It is done entirely for its own sake. It is higher, more beautiful, and more precious than work.
Moreover, the play of worship is what we will do for eternity. Heaven is a place of utter uselessness, but utter beingness, where we find our true identity as human beings. Note—we are not human doings, but human beings. Worship brings us into that place of “being” in the truest sense, in our original intention as created in the image of God, who is the essence of “to be” itself.
“The true object of all human life is play.” -G. K. Chesterton
This year I have been reflecting on the topic of re-enchanting the Gospel with objective beauty. Here is a beautiful example of God’s utter playfulness. In his delightful fourth chapter from Orthodoxy, “The Ethics of Elfland,” G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The sun rises every morning. . . . Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun regularly rises because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they especially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again,”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But, perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
These words may seem fanciful, but the sensibility is correct. Whenever I play with my grandson, I really get this! This world and all that is in it, including humankind, are a generous, even lavish overflow of the love of God. The only reasonable response to the extravagant love of God poured out toward us is worship. Worship is Eucharistic, which means it is a giant, “Thank you!” to God. Giving thanks to God is the natural, joyful, even spontaneous response of the recipient of God’s abundant, effervescent grace and mercy manifested in Jesus Christ. Likewise, the core of Christian worship is giving thanks, or in Greek, eucharisteo. We give thanks on behalf of all creation — more on that in my next article.