Click here to watch the 2014 Nevin Lectures
« Back to Blog

The Festival and the Mass

Like Marx himself, the Marxist sociologist Henri Lefebvre was a firm believer in the dictum that “the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism,” though he dissented from Marx’s prior claim that the criticism of religion is essentially complete. He includes a vicious, sarcastic, Marxist diatribe against the Catholicism of his youth in the introductory volume of his Critique of Everyday Life, but along the way he gives a thick portrait of “traditional society” that reminded me of portions of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. A number of Lefebvre’s comments are stunningly on target.

In a chapter called “Notes Written One Sunday in the French Countryside,” Lefebvre imagines, with some condescension, the world we have lost, a world embodied particularly in peasant festivities. “Peasant celebrations,” he writes, “tightened social links and at the same time gave rein to all desires which had been pent up by collective discipline and the necessities of everyday work. In celebrating, each member of the community went beyond himself, so to speak, and in one fell swoop drew all that was energetic, pleasurable and possible from nature, food, social life and his own body and mind.” Festival was not radically separated from daily life, but different “only in the explosion of forces which had been slowly accumulated in and via everyday life itself.” Peasant celebrations embodied both the liminal experience of communitas and expressed and even reinforced the social order.

Festivals, he argues, accomplished this double task through a variety of “sacrificial” gestures and rites. Peasants sacrificed in a specific sense: “in one day they devour all the provisions and stocks it has taken months to accumulate. Generously, they welcome guests and strangers. It is a day of excess. Anything goes.” But this “orgy of eating and drinking” is shadowed by “a deep sense of foreboding.” Peasants know how vulnerable they are to the whims of weather. Excessive feasting and hospitality may come back to bite them. Thus, “Festival is a risk, a wager on the future.” But it is worth the sacrifice, because it is by such festive sacrifices that one proves himself a participant in the community. Refusing to participate in festival for fear of loss placed one outside the community, and this would “risk interrupting the normal, fertile course of nature and human life.” In a very concrete way, the excesses of Festival forged and strengthened the bonds of community.

According to Lefevre, the church was an agent of alienation. Instead of fulfilling the communal effects of Festival, the medieval Mass undermined the human goods of peasant celebrations. Far from standing staunchly against paganism, “The Church is nothing more and nothing less than the unlimited ability to absorb and accumulate the inhuman.” What he means can be indicated by his account of the “tragic” character of the Mass. Among other things, the tragedy lies in the church’s absorption of Festival into its own social life, which produces the holy meal that is only an alienated, attenuated version of Festival: The Mass is “torn away from community to be accomplished by those who mediate between us and the absolute – torn away from the life of the senses and from real festivity to become symbolic, abstract, distant. Transferring entirely another plane – a spiritual and ‘interior’ plane, apparently.” But the result is no community at all but “a caricature of community”: “people in black . . . their eyes half-closed, their hands clasped piously together, absorbed in the dreariness of what their mouths and souls have just tasted.”

The Mass’s neutralization of Festival was not isolated. It is the primary instance of the church’s conquest of life, a conquest that Lefebvre naturally wants to reverse (he talks of his youthful fantasies of inventing a crippling heresy). The church is able to “accumulate all human (or rather ‘inhuman’) alienation” because “it penetrates everyday life.” He explains: “On the one hand it has created a dehumanized ceremonial, an official magnificence, an extra-national State, an abstract theory; on the other, it has produced an extremely subtle and precise psychological and moral technique.” Because of the latter, religion is present “in every act of one’s immediate life, no matter how insignificant,” either in “‘internalized’ form of a ritual or in the external form of the priest who listens, understand, advises, reprimands or ‘pardons.’”

Religion has its moral doctrines that “tell us what we must do . . . in an everyday life which seems all the more derelict, uncertain and humiliated for the fact that the life of the mind, of knowledge, of art, of the State, is getting more and more vast, more ‘elevated’ and more ritualized.” In this way, “Religion ‘snowballs’” until it becomes an “immense obstacle,” present “in life’s most infinitesimal detail, knowing the weaknesses and provoking them, breathing in the positive substance of everyday life and concentrating its negative aspects.” Religion becomes virtually inescapable: “The ritual gesture when a funeral goes by, words of insult, an ‘A-Dieu’ when we part, a wish, a propitious phrase of greeting or thanks – all such everyday attitudes still come down to us from magic and religion.” And this inescapable practice simply reinforces the illusion: “the illusion by which religion deceives us . . . tends to be born again with every action in our everyday lives.”

In a Nietzschean vein, Lefebvre concludes that religion “accumulates all man’s helplessness. It offers a critique of life; it is itself that critique: a reactionary, destructive critique.” To say it is Nietzschean is not to dismiss it: There is too much truth in Lefebvre’s diatribe for Christians to ignore it.

Criticism of religion, criticism of anything, is never, for a Marxist like Lefebvre, an end in itself. The aim is never to critique but to change, and if religious has penetrated everywhere, so must Marxism. The end is “the transformation of life in its smallest, most everyday detail.” The end is the Marxist humanist aim of making “thought – the power of man, the participation in and the consciousness of that power – intervene in life in the humblest detail.” It is “to change life, lucidly to recreate everyday life.”

One doesn’t normally think of turning to Marxists for insight into sacramental theology, but perhaps one should. Marx himself, after all, had a strong sense of the sacred and the sacramental, recognizing a secular version of relic devotion in the “fetishization” of commodities in capitalistic systems. For all his scorn for Christianity as such, Lefebvre’s analysis of the distortions of the medieval Mass, which grew out of a faulty nature-grace dichotomy, has much to recommend it. He pinpoints the flaws in the anti-Festival Mass that the Reformers attacked, an anti-Festival that has too often taken root in the churches of the Reformation themselves. (If you doubt it, re-read the paragraph above about people in black with eyes closed, and then look around your church during the Supper!). And he shows what is at stake in debates about liturgy.

Marxist though he is, Lefebvre is a better sacramental theologian than most theologians.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House in Birmingham, Alabama, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho.