Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Behold, the Mass of St. Paul’s

You slowly shuffle in past the open doors and onto the highly-polished floor. The vaulted ceilings stretch up above you, forcing you to crane your neck to take in their enormity. Simple chandeliers and towering candelabras bathe the room in a soft glow where the sunlight streaming in through the windows doesn’t quite reach. Artwork and statues perched high up draw your eye, giving you pause as you proceed. Others are slowly moving about the cavernous hall, lighting candles for prayer or speaking to each other in hushed tones. Though nobody has explicitly said to do so, you too keep your voice very quiet, if you can find it in yourself to speak at all. You take a program from an usher with a nod of your head and slowly make your way to a seat, settling in and continuing to take in the intricate details on the ceilings and walls. You are ready. The stage is set. Mass at St. Paul’s is about to begin.

You realize, of course, as an experienced anthropologist, that from beginning to end, this reverent ceremony is all about spectacle. The organ player strolls out and begins playing the first hymn. A stream of people emerge from the front of the church; a whole procession of priests, ceremonial bearers, and a choir largely consisting of young boys, softly crooning their sacred song as they all make their way around the attendees towards the dais in the front of the chamber. As Roland Barthes succinctly puts it, they are going “exactly through the motions which are expected” of them. All in the procession are taking practiced, measured steps, and there is not a single choir boy out of place. The building, the parish, all of it culminates in the ultimate performance, the ultimate spectacle, which the parishioners are there to witness.

As the audience to this performance, they are not interested in the “logical conclusion” of this ceremony, but in the passion, in the buildup, in the “sum of spectacles” that this will prove to be. All of these are features of a spectacle that Barthes describes to us.

These ideas are consistent throughout the ceremony. The body language of the priests and the speakers tells you when to turn your attention their way. The robes they wear and the way they interact with each other gives you clues to the hierarchy of their ranks and the importance of their roles in this process. All of it builds up to a spectacle that has been hundreds of years in the making – one that you are now a privileged part of.

And as any good spectator would do, you play along; you sit and rise as the priests ask, you bow your head and read along with the prayers in your program, you quietly remain in your seat during communion if you aren’t baptized, you rise and join the queue to receive the blood and body of Christ if you are. This is a spectacle, and you must play your part. Go through your expected motions. It will end eventually, and reality will come rushing back in, but until then, you are simply one of many, and you are all there to experience this together.

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