Liturgy: What does it mean?

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Christ the Great High Priest Icon (source)

There has been much talk about liturgy in recent years. The usual “non-structured” format of contemporary worship services is being organized after more ancient and more structured “higher church” services. A good example of this is Robert Webber’s excellent book Ancient Future Worship, a work advocating for contemporary worship services utilizing ancient worship structures.

This usually entails inserting confessions of sin, or the creeds, calls to worship or benedictions; or sometimes it simply means outlining the service and placing it in the bulletins. All of this is very good in my estimation. Ever since the dawn of contemporary worship, liturgy has been seen as stale or stifling, when actually it helps the service flow well. It also allows congregants to better engage the transitions within the service.

But what does liturgy actually mean? And why is it an important aspect to Christian worship? 

The word “liturgy” is a transliteration from the Greek word leitourgía. This word is a combination of two Greek words: leitos, and ergos. Leitos means “public”, while ergos means “work”. Put together, leitourgía means the work of the public, or the work of the people.

It was originally a word the Greeks and Romans used for holding a public office or for enrolling in the military. The “people” would choose from themselves someone to serve. Public office was thus the work of a “liturgist”. Louis Weil explains:

Public works in ancient Greece were regularly undertaken by private citizens, apparently in pace of an orderly and effective system of taxation. For example, to build a bridge for a public road across a stream on one’s private property would constitute a liturgy. Military service at one’s own expense would be a liturgy… Liturgy is work for the people (Liturgy for Living, 13)

Within the earliest Christian context this word has since come to mean the work which the people of God do together to offer God praise and worship. Leitourgía is used several places in the OT Greek Septuagint, and a few places in the NT. In the OT, this word was used to describe the sacrificial cult ministered by the people through the priesthood. Within this context, the ceremonial works and sacrificial works were understood as liturgy.

As one moves into the NT, however, the liturgy takes on a new meaning in the person of Christ. Hebrews 8:6 makes a reference to Christ’s “ministry that is much more excellent than the old”. This word “ministry” is leitourgía in the Greek. Properly, Christ’s work is seen here as a liturgy that surpasses the value of the OT liturgy. But what liturgy does Hebrews reference?

While all of Christ’s life should be seen as a liturgy, it is especially his death that is seen as a liturgy, especially in light of the cultic sacrifices within the OT. Christ’s death, although by all appearances was simply an execution, was a cultic sin-sacrifice. Christ liturgized himself on the cross. He offered himself a single time for the sin of mankind, after which he ascended as the smoke of burnt offerings to the throne room of God. Christ assimilated into himself the numerous sacrifices of the old covenant and perfected them as the true offering. As Louis Weil says: Christ is in himself the true Christian liturgy (ibid, 14).

With this in mind, Paul says that believers themselves are liturgists, not because of their own sufficient obedience or offering, but because of their participation in Christ. By being in Christ, believers now offer themselves as a “spiritual sacrifices” (Rom 12:1-2) to the Father. No longer do Christians offer animals, but instead offer praise to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. In fact, in Philippians 2:17, Paul calls the entire life of believers a “sacrificial offering” (Gk, leitourgía). What this means is that the old covenant offering of animals and blood sacrifices is realized in the praise of Christian believers.

Louis Weil says this about Christian liturgy:

Christ’s life and death is in fact the one liturgy; and Christians whose lives are “in Christ”, formed and shaped in his likeness, constitute a liturgy also. It would be even better to say that they constitute a working out and a making present “in all times and in all places” of the one liturgy… Christian service of worship is a representation or making present of the life and death of Christ. In worship, we appropriate Christ’s liturgy as our own. (pp 14-15)

The Christian liturgy is not so much about the order of worship as it is about the making present the self-offering of Christ within a corporate context. The corporate meeting of the church is the offering of the people through its worship to the Father in Christ. It is about the work of the people “in Christ” offering themselves to the Father. 

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