One vital likeness between drama and faith is—faith. The theatre asks us for a willing suspension of disbelief—in other words, an act of faith. That’s not exceptional. That’s normal: all human relationships do that. Every human relationship asks us to entrust ourselves into the hands of somebody we can never fully know. You trust that your doctor is not planning to knock you out and harvest your kidneys, that your car mechanic has not installed a bomb in your ignition, that your barista has not poisoned your cappuccino. Without faith, a civilization disintegrates because a civilization runs and is lubricated by bonds of trust.
Drama asks us to entrust ourselves into the hands of the playwright in the faith that the story he tells us will, variously, reveal the truth, show us what it means to be human, teach us what love is, help us face the darkness, give us hope, steel us to have pity even on villains and show us what happens if we refuse these things. Liturgy does the same. It asks us to trust that as the priest dresses up as Christ (and as we imitate him by outrageously playing the role of none other than the Divine Son in praying the “Our Father”), the divine Director will cause something miraculous to happen.
The Mask of Virtue
We know there were theatres in Judea in Jesus’ day, such as the one built by Herod the Great. Theatres were part of Greek imperial culture imposed on Jews by Alexander the Great and his successors. As with every culture clash, ancient occupied Judea had its collaborators, its mushy middle, and its resistance. The heirs of the resistance, who hated the imposition of Greco-Roman culture on the peoples of Judea, were called “separated ones”—in Aramaic, “Pharisees.” They sought to keep the ancestral ways uncontaminated by pollution from the Greek and, later, Roman rulers.
But here’s the irony: though it is notable that we have no evidence Jesus ever went to a theatre, we do know that Jesus uses a term borrowed from Greek theatre to arraign the scribes and Pharisees. That term is hupocritos, “stage actor.” That’s because, in his day, actors wore exaggerated masks to represent the character they played. It was an apt image to describe people who pretended to be one thing while really being another.
The Pharisees acted this way because they saw no way for holiness to triumph over evil and sin. They had learned the right lesson but drawn the wrong conclusion from the Law of Moses. Under the old Law, ritual defilement was intended as a kind of sign or shadow. It was meant to show us in our pride that we could not, by our own strength and power, keep ourselves clean from sin. The power of sin is greater than our power of sanctity under the old Law. So the Pharisees understand sanctity in only one way: separation (as their name implied). They reasoned that if the power of sin is greater than the power of sanctity, then the solution was to separate themselves from all that was unclean and even all that had touched what was unclean. So they separated themselves from the Gentiles, from touching the dead and dying, from lepers, and from menstruating women. They were right to see in these ritual prohibitions an image or sign of lifelessness. But they were wrong to conclude that by separating themselves they could avoid the sin which ritual uncleanness signifies. And so they held up the mirror of ritual uncleanness that God had given them in the Mosaic Law, but instead of seeing in it an image of their own uncleanness and defilement by sin, they turned it around and said to those around them, “See how unclean you are!” They covered their own faces in a mask of fake holiness and did not allow God or man to look upon them.
It is therefore striking that Jesus’ very first miracle of healing recorded by Matthew is that of a leper. What is even more striking is the method Jesus chose to perform this miracle: he touches the leper (8:3).
Under the old covenant, such an action was regarded as defiling. Touching a leper meant you were ritually defiled. It meant you had to go through a whole week of purification. The Pharisees understood uncleanness, sin, and defilement to be more powerful influences than cleanness, sanctity, and purity. In the old covenant, sin was the superior power. When someone afflicted with some ritual uncleanness, which symbolizes sin, touched someone who was clean, the “flow” of power went in one direction only; the clean person was defiled but the unclean person was not sanctified.
However, when Jesus touched the leper something astounding happened: the leper became clean and Jesus was not defiled. The flow of power was, for the first time, reversed.
Matthew goes on to relate a whole series of encounters in which Jesus cleanses, heals, and gives life to people whom the Pharisees, hiding behind their masks of hypocrisy, saw only as defiling. Jesus receives unclean Gentiles and they receive faith (8:5-13), consorts with unclean, demon-possessed people in a cemetery and they are restored (8:28-31), permits the touch of an unclean menstruating woman and she is healed (9:18-22), touches the unclean dead and she is raised (9:25), and eats with unclean tax collectors and sinners and makes them saints (9:9-13). Yet, in all this, Pharisaic mask-wearers see only the ritual defilement, not the revolutionary reversal in the flow of power. For, as Jesus points out elsewhere, pride has blinded them (Jn 9:35-41). They are so certain they are clean they cannot say, “Lord, if you’re willing, you can make me clean.” They continue to wear the mask of the hypocrite to the point where Jesus finds it necessary to excoriate them as hupocritos in Matthew 23.
Clothed in Christ
That said, it is also important to recognize that masks and role-playing have another, much happier connotation in the Christian tradition. To begin with, besides the image of the hypocrite who is worse than his best words, there is also what I call the “eupocrite”: the person who is better than his worst words.
Jesus offers a precise example of such a person in this parable:
“What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Mt 21:28-31)
Both sons say one thing and do another. But the second son speaks words of rebellion yet does the act of obedience—and the acting is all. In addition, Scripture speaks of “putting on Christ.” As Paul says, “clothe yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14). This is both theatrical and liturgical imagery: the actor dons the costume of the character he plays and the priest dons the priestly vestments, just as Jesus himself clothed himself in our flesh.
It is also baptismal language. The newly baptized are told in the liturgy that “You have clothed yourself in Christ. See in these outward garments a sign of your baptismal dignity.” And so, in our daily walk as disciples, we pretend to be little Christs, and as is the moral of many fairy tales, we discover that our ugly faces of sin—under the mask of love we wear as we try to imitate Christ—are transformed into something beautiful. The result is the surprising discovery that through Christ, virtue is revealed to be the deepest truth about us, and sin the mask. That is why Paul tells the thoroughly messed-up Corinthians:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:9-11)
Note how Paul speaks here. He does not say, “I’d hoped you were real Christians, but obviously you aren’t.” Instead, he says “Such were some of you.” Appealing to the Corinthians’ baptism, he effectively tells them, “Become what you are.” Grow into the part. This, again, is how the moral life happens both naturally and supernaturally. We teach our kids to parrot the lines “please” and “thank you” until the parrot talk becomes part of them, and they grow into the role of an adult. Just so, Christ teaches us to step into the role of Jesus Christ and parrot his thoughts, actions, and prayers until we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love” (Eph 4:15-16).
All of this involves us in the reality that human beings are, by their very nature, priestly creatures. Part three of our series will touch on that priestly role to which we are called.
• Part One: “The Drama of Faith: The Church and the Stage” (July 25, 2014)
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