Liturgy: What does it mean? (edit)

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Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Father

I had written a post on liturgy about a year ago, but after thinking and reading, I’d like to write a short edit of that post.

Liturgy is often associated with the church’s worship service. In particular, with ritualized or corporate actions. Take for instance, if a church does a confession of sin together, this is “liturgy”. Or, some think of liturgy in terms of the structure of the worship service. Within the church I work, the service is structure around several movements: a call to worship, songs of response, a confession of sin, songs of response, and finally a confession of faith follow by the sermon.

These are all fine things to think about. However, the word liturgy doesn’t immediately touch on any of these things! This is what my edit post has to do with.

The word “liturgy” is a transliteration from the Greek word leitourgía. This word is a combination of two Greek words: laos, and ergos. Laos means “people”, while ergos means “work”.

The word ergos is used many times in the NT, mostly by Paul. It is used mostly within the context of salvation in the book of Romans and Galatians. So for instance, Paul says in Romans 3:20, man is not saved by “works of the law”, or ergon nomos. Laos is also used many times in the NT. And it is almost exclusively used to designate the people of God. So, for instance, Matthew 1:21 tells us that Jesus came to save his “people from their sins”.

Logically, then, it would seem that leitourgía as a combination word would mean the work that God’s people do. But this isn’t true! As I said in my last post, leitourgía is used within the context of politics. As Louis Weil says,

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)

Notice some important things here: within the Roman context, a liturgist was a private citizen who worked for the good of the rest of the people. In other words, it was not the entire company of people; it was rather one person who worked on their behalf. A liturgist was a public representative.

Maxwell Johnson says just this in his book Praying and Believing in Early Christianity:

[Liturgy] is [originally] a secular Greek term for public work done not by but on behalf of the people by another person or group appointed to that task, a term equivalent to those public officials in countries such as England designated as “ministers”. (p xi)

This of course resembles America’s politics: one person is voted to be a public personality; someone who works on behalf of the people for their good. A politician is therefore (ideally at least) a liturgist.

When we put this in the NT context of worship and people of God, the liturgist is not the entire company of the church, but rather one who is chosen from the people to offer worship in their stead. Hebrews tells us that Jesus is in fact this liturgist. Hebrews 8:1-2 tells us that Jesus is a great high priest, who has risen and sat at the right hand of God, and is now “a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man”. This word “minister” means literally liturgist. Jesus is a liturgist in the true tent of the Lord, ministering to him on our behalf, in our stead.

What this all amounts to is the reality that Jesus, through his incarnation, became one of us, so that, being appointed as chief worshipper, he may offer to God true worship on our behalf.

I want to get more into this in a follow up post, but what this means for Sunday morning worship is what JB Torrance says in his excellent book Worship and the Triune God of Grace:

Whatever else worship is, it is our liturgical amen to the worship of Christ.

This is the “wonderful exchange” by which Christ takes what is ours (our broken lives and unworthy prayers), sanctifies them, offers them without spot or wrinkle to the Father (p 15)

Torrance speaks of the wonderful exchange: Jesus takes what is our and offers them on our behalf to the Father in true worship. And during worship, we do nothing more (certainly not less!) then say “amen” to this true worship. This means that all true worship is a participation in Christ’s worship. It is a hiding behind and in the once for all liturgy of Jesus himself. We offer nothing else than that.

Louis Weil tells us this much:

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. (Liturgy of the Living, pp 14-15)

In a follow up post, I want to talk about why we so often associate the structured parts of worship with “liturgy”.

The short answer is that these structured parts map out, mirror, rehearse, the once for all liturgy of Jesus Christ. As people in Christ, we enact and participate in Christ through the liturgy. 

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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.