Theatre and the Church

Theatre And The Church.

The writers of the early Church were very severe in their invectives against all frequenters of the theatre and public stage plays, and such frequenters were excluded from the privilege of baptism. For this sentiment respecting the theatre there are two reasons assigned:

1. The several sorts of heathen games and plays were instituted upon a religious account, in honor of the gods, and men thought they were doing a grateful thing to them while they were engaged in such exercises. Christians could not, therefore, be present at them as spectators without partaking, in some measure, in the idolatry of them.

2. They were the great nurseries of impurity, where incest and adultery were represented with abominable obscenity. Venus was represented in all her lewd behavior, Mars as an adulterer, and Jupiter no less a prince in his vices than in his kingdom. The theatres, by reason of their impurities, were places of unavoidable temptation, and were considered as the devil's own ground and property. Tertullian (De Spectac. c. 26) says the devil was once asked, when a woman was seized by him in a theatre, how he durst presume to possess a Christian, and he answered, confidently, "I had a right to, for I found her upon my own ground." In the time of Tertullian, and when the author of the Constitutions drew up his collections, a Christian becoming a spectator of these plays lost his title to Christian communion. Later, when the theatres were purged from idolatry, but not from lewdness, the fathers contented themselves with declaiming against them with sharp invectives. —Bingham, Christ. Antiq. bk. 11:ch. 5, § 9; bk. 16:ch. 11:§ 12.

It is well known, nevertheless, that the dramatic representation of modern Europe grew up under the wing of the Church, and only slowly detached itself from this its earliest shelter. Of the dramatic element which was allowed to find place in its own services we have a curious illustration in the manner in which the offering of the magi was set forth in some churches on the festival of Epiphany (Interim, Denkwüdigkeiten, 5, 316). Three boys, clothed in silk, with golden crowns upon their heads, and each a golden vessel in his hand, represented the wise men of the East. Entering the choir, and advancing towards the altar, they chanted the following strophe:

"O quam diguis celebranda dies ista laudibus, In qua Christi genitura propalatur gentibus, Pax terrenis nunciatur, gloria ccelestibus; Novi partu signum fulget Orientis patria. Currunt reges Orientis stella sibi perseviu, Currunt reges et adorant Deum ad praesepia; Tres adorant reges unum, triplex est oblatio."

During the singing of these verses they gradually approached the altar; there the first lifted up the vessel which he held in his hand, exclaiming,

"Anrum primo, And the second: thus secundo, And the third: myrrham dante tertio."

Hereupon, the first once more:

"A'urm regumi, The second: thus celestem, And the third: mori nutat unctio."

Then one of them pointed with his hand to the star hanging from the roof of the church, and sang in a loud voice, "Hoc signum magni Regis;" and all three proceeded to make their offerings, singing meanwhile the responsal, "Eamus, inquiramus eum, et offeramus ei munera, aurum, thus, et myrrham." At the conclusion of this responsal, a younger boy lifted up his voice, which was meant to imitate the voice of an angel, from behind the altar, and sang, "Nuntium vobis fero de supernis; Natus est: Christus dominator orbis In Bethlehem Judese; sicenim propheta dixerat ante." Thereupon the three who represented the kings withdrew into the sacristy; singing, "In Bethlehem natus est Rex coelorum," etc.

See the Latin monographs on theatrical representations cited by Volbeding, Index Programmatum, p. 172. SEE MYSTERIES.

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