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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A New Temple, Priest, and Sacrifice

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One of the more famous stories from the life of Jesus is his cleansing of the temple. It is famous, of course, because it highlights Christ’s anger against the money-changers who were selling animals for sacrifice at a hefty price.

They were in essence using the temple sacrificial system for their own benefit. And not just that, the money-changers were hindering worshippers. The temple was a place of communion of YHWH with his people. And not just His people, but with the watching world. The outer most court of the temple — called the court of the Gentiles — was open to any and all who would want to come and see the temple. And yet, as soon as they walked through the door, any who entered would be halted by the swindling money-changers. It is certain that any righteous Israelite would be scandalized by it. It makes total sense that Jesus himself was infuriated.

Matthew’s account tells us that Jesus, upon entering, “overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold the pigeons. He said to them, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers'” (21:12-13). Jesus says in essence that the money-changers had perverted the purpose of the temple as a place of prayer and fellowship into a place of profit.

While Luke ends his version of the story there, Matthew includes an additional part. He tells us that after Jesus overturned the tables, that the “blind and lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (vv. 14).

Now why would Matthew include this little addition? It certainly isn’t random. Matthew doesn’t waste space in his gospel. What is the connection?

The connection is this: the blind and the lame were seen as unclean according to the law of Moses. And should they desire to enter the temple beyond the outer courts, they would need to be cleansed by a sacrifice. And yet, Matthew tells here that when they entered they not only had no sacrifice (presumably they wouldn’t have been able to afford the animals the money-changers were offering!), but they were also immediately cleansed by Christ himself without a sacrifice. What I want to suggest is that within the context, Matthew means to picture Christ as a new temple and sacrificial system, one better than the old; one that supersedes and fulfills the old.

Matthew is presenting Christ as replacing the old cultic temple system. The old way of the Mosaic system had been perverted by the money-changers, and thus Christ becomes the new way into the presence of God. He is in himself a temple, housing God’s glory. And, he is in himself a new priest presenting himself as a cleansing sacrifice, thus enabling us to enter “through the veil of his flesh” (Heb 10:19-22). Matthew is, in his own brilliant way, presenting a rich atonement theology!

Atonement Theory and Sacrifice

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Peter Leithart, in his recently released theological magnum opus, Delivered from the Elements of the World, says at the beginning of his book that any theology of the cross must make sense or be connected to the Levitical cultic sacrifices (among other things of course. Leithart mentions 5 criteria for a proper theology of atonement: evangelical, Levitical, Pauline, inevitable or necessary, and fruitful).

Leithart says this about Levitical atonement theology: “a successful atonement theology treats Jesus’ death (at least) as a sacrifice, and it must be able to show that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfills Levitical ritual in historical events” (p 20).

The connection of the cross to sacrifice is of course apparent in NT letters such as Hebrews and the gospel narratives. But how exactly does the death of Christ “work” as a sacrifice? Peter Leithart takes up much of this book to bring to clarity the sacrificial death of Christ. First, he explains the purpose of the Levitical sacrifices:

[The] sacrificial system was designed to bring Israel near so that divine Husband and human Bride could feast together at the house of Yahweh. Yahweh accommodated himself to the post-Edenic, fleshly situation of Israel. Israelites themselves did not approach Yahweh but drew near through animal mediators, animals whose flesh was destroyed so that they could be transfigured and ascend, as the worshipper could not, in Yahweh’s presence. Israelite priests ate in the holy place but only under controlled conditions; Israelites could eat and drink and rejoice before the Lord, but only at a distance from his fiery presence. Israelites could not go past the cherubic swords and live. Israelites could not become fire to join themselves to Yahweh’s fire. But they could send animals past the cherubic swords, and Yahweh accepted the animals in place of the worshipers and Yahweh’s fire “consumed” the flesh of animals so that their flesh was turned to smoke and fire, “divinized” into union with Yahweh (p 138)

To make this explanation simple: the sacrifices were a sacramental means to accomplishing union with God. Israel offered these sacrifices, because they themselves were unable to ascend to God; they killed and burned the offerings as an act of repentance and vicarious self-giving, hoping the smoke could ascend to God and be accepted in their stead. This sacramental union was finalized when the priests ate the sacrifice “in the presence of the Lord”, which symbolized table fellowship with Yahweh.

Peter Leithart’s explanation of OT sacrificial theology represents a Thomistic sentiment. Sacrifices were seen by Aquinas as vicarious offerings of the self through the animal offerings for the purpose of creating union of God and man. The point of the sacrifices were “giving up” part of yourself to God; something valuable, something representative. This is why Israel offered animals, because they were comparable to income during those times. Even more, they gave the first born without spot and blemish. This was the most valuable animal. To give an animal like that was to give up part of your own income and wealth, and thus it was seen as a vicarious act of self-giving.

Moving on the cross, Leithart points out that the cross is seen by NT writers as fulfilling and finalizing OT sacrifices because while the OT sacrifices were vicarious, Christ’s was personal and actual. He didn’t offer to God a goat or bull, hoping that God would accept those in their place; rather, Christ offered himself in totality to God. Leithart says this:

[Christ] fulfilled the sacrificial system because he did what all sacrifices signified…  Jesus did this in fact when he offered himself, passing through death into union with God like an animal sacrifice. (p 159)

So he fulfilled what all other sacrifices wished to fulfill: the offering of the total self to God. In fact, this is the point of the resurrection: it was simply smoke that rose to God; rather, God accepted Christ’s sacrifice and rose him up and seated him at his right hand. Sacramental union has been definitively accomplished in the person of Jesus.

But Leithar acknowledges: Jesus ” was not the first martyr to give his life to the God of Israel” (p 159). So what made his sacrifice different from all the other martyrs of the faith of Israel? Leithart answers:

The answer is, his identity and life. Jesus was the “son of God” in the Old Testament sense: he was Israel’s King, Israel embodied in a single person, and so his death, like the death of every king of Israel, was on behalf of his people. When he passed through death toward transfiguration, Israel went with him. More, Jesus was Israel’s king and Israel High King in one person, both David’s Son and David’s Lord. He poured out his blood, the life of his flesh, as Yahweh incarnate, and so his passage through death was Yahweh’s own passion, God’s own passage through human. Besides, Jesus’ entire life made his martyrdom unique. Heroic as they were, no other martyrs had lived a life of complete obedience to Torah. None had fully realized all that Torah required. Like every sacrificial animal, Jesus offered himself “without blemish to God” (Heb 9:14) (pp 159-160)

Jesus’ sacrifice was unique because Jesus was representative of Israel; and, borrowing from Saint Anselm, Jesus was man and God, which made his death utterly and infinitely more valuable than any other death of a human being. But even more than that, Jesus’ sacrifice was pure and without blemish. Because Jesus obeyed the Torah in full, he offered himself a pure oblation, innocent one, perfectly loving and just. God took delight in that and raised him up, and consequently, all Israel in him.

Aquinas said in his Summa Theologia that the value in Christ’s self-offering was not so much his suffering (although this doesn’t discount the need for vicarious suffering), but rather in the infinite perfect love with which he suffered. The entire point of the sacrifices was the give the self to God entirely: this is just what Christ did in the cross by dying in perfect love. And that infinite love was sufficient for the remission of all the world’s sin!

 

The Meaning of Sacrifice

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Sacrifice is a concept found quite literally everywhere in the scriptures. In fact, throughout every major story in the Bible, we find instances of sacrifices. While it is readily apparent that the concept of sacrifice finds its fulfillment, its telos, in Christ, it is not readily apparent what the meaning of sacrifice is.

Joseph Ratzinger, in his Spirit of the Liturgy, has an interesting discussion on its meaning. He begins by noticing that the “common view is that sacrifice has something to do with destruction. It means handing over to God a reality that is in some way precious” (Kindle version, loc. 250). Put another way, one way to view sacrifice is that destroying something is a means of “acknowledging God’s sovereignty over all things” (loc 250), as worshipping him as supreme over all things. 

Ratzinger however disagrees with the concept: “belonging to God has nothing to do with destruction”, he says (loc 250). Instead, he brings in Augustine’s definition of sacrifice. He says,

The true ‘sacrifice’ is the civitas Dei, that is, love-transformed mankind, the divinization of creation and the surrender of all things to God: God all in all” (loc 258).

What Ratzinger means by this is that sacrifice, rather than being about destruction, is about the giving of oneself in totality to God. It is “losing oneself” in total surrender to God, and thereby finding life in God’s own life. It is giving oneself in love to God to the point of being completely eclipsed by the divine love, and becoming “divinized” with his life.

To clarify his meaning, Ratzinger references creation: he points out rightly that creation itself is a divine act of self-giving love. God, out of the sheer gift of his own self, gives in the act of creation: he gives mankind life and creaturely freedom. And man in his freedom has two choices: he can receive this sheer gift of grace and give himself wholly back to God; or, he can retreat into himself and collapse into selfishness.

Ratzinger says,

God’s free act of creation is indeed ordered toward [a return]…Sacrifice in its essence is simply returning to love and therefore divinization (loc 313, 321)

Man as created is meant to receive God’s love and in his own gift of freedom, give himself wholly back to God’s love and life. The more he gives, the more he participates in God’s own life. So then, Adam was given creaturely freedom in order that he might give himself totally back to God. Instead, he retreated from God and preserved himself. 

This is, Ratzinger says, sin at its essence: it is the retreat of oneself into the self, into self-preservation, into finitude, into death. Ratzinger says:

Original sin, so hard otherwise to understand, is identical with the fall into finitude, which explains why it clings to everything stuck in the vortex of finitude” (loc 305).

In his fallenness, rather than giving of himself to God, man clings to himself, and collapses into “the vortex” of finiteness. This condition of finitude, or turning in toward oneself, is what every man must thus be redeemed from. He is called to sacrifice, to give of himself, and yet, he cannot! He is utterly unable, tangled in the mess of his own selfishness. And thus he destroys himself.

Consequently, this is why Israel’s animal sacrifices were so insufficient, and called for a better sacrifice: Israel sacrificed bulls and goats. At best, these offerings were a part of the self, a gift of remorse and thanksgiving. However, at worst, they were a replacement of the self, a substitution of the self. Ratzinger explains:

Temple sacrifices was always accompanied by a vivid sense of its insufficiency… Already in 1 Samuel 15:22 we meet a primordial word of prophecy that, with some variations, runs through the Old Testament before being taken up anew by Christ: “More precious than sacrifices is obedience, submission better than the fat of rams!” In Hosea the prophecy appears in this form: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings (6:6) (loc 391-99)

The blood of goats and bulls was not only insufficient, but detestable by the completion of the Old Testament, precisely because it was Israel herself that God wanted. Israel at her worst gave the sacrifices in place of herself. Their hearts were far off from God, even when offering the sacrifices! This called for a true sacrifice, which could give mankind fully to God. 

Taken into the New Testament, this is precisely why Christ’s self-sacrifice is sufficient: it is in the cross that Christ offers himself — the perfect man —  fully and without reserve to God the Father. God the Son, in the incarnation, takes humanity to himself, and offers it to God to the point of death; he gives himself in totality to the divine love, and thereby becomes divinized; or, put biblically, he is raised imperishable. Finitude no longer has a say, for the divine love has illuminated mankind through the self-offering of Christ.

This is also why Christ is called the new Adam. He is the true man, who gives himself back in love to God. And it is through this self-sacrifice that humanity is thus welcomed into the life of the Godhead. Ratzinger explains:

The vicarious sacrifice of Jesus takes us up and leads us to that likeness with God, that transformation into love, which is the only true adoration (loc 502)

Being united to his sacrifice through faith, we are brought into the life and love of God; and being united to the Godhead, we are then called to “take up our cross”, to “love ourselves not, even unto death”:

It is man, conforming himself to [Christ] and becoming [Christ] through faith, who is the true sacrifice, the true glory of God in the world” (loc 478)