03 February 2011

Λειτουργία: A Modest Proposal

The historical meaning given for the Greek word 'liturgy' is one of the most commonly made mistakes following the 20th cent. Liturgical Movement. The fashionable trope goes like this:


'Liturgy' means 'work of the people'.

This is wrong.

It is no more true than to say that the English 'cupboard' is ‘a plank of wood used as a drinking vessel’. Yes, 'cup' and 'board' individually have the meanings of 'drinking vessel' and 'plank of wood', and one can try to envision the compound word having the absurd meaning given above, but this would be a mistaken understanding.

What 'liturgy' actually meant to the Greek-speakers who chose to use it in the Scriptures was:


a public duty, which the richer citizens discharged at their own expense.*

Examples of a 'liturgy': a private citizen paying to build a theatre, throwing a public festival, or building a war ship. It was the act of one for the benefit of all.

This dramatically alters the meaning from the current popular, mistaken understanding. It is not what 'we do' all together, it is rather what One does for our benefit. This correct understanding is enshrined in the opening dialogue; this, from deacon to priest:


It is the time of the Lord to act. **

Thus, the One effecting the 'liturgy' is not the congregation in a 'work of the people' (neither is it a clericalistic performance piece), rather it is the Lord Who acts, for the benefit of all—the people then enter into His action.

The modest proposal:

Stop proliferating a false understanding of 'liturgy' as 'work of the people'.

If you hear someone mistakenly use this etymology, you may kindly direct them to this blog post.

I hope to post a follow-up to this and begin to engage the political child of 'work of the people': the obsession with 'active participation'.


*
Liddell, Scott. An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon.

** Καιρός τοῦ ποιῆσαι τῷ Κυρίῳ.

4 comments:

Anna said...

Pfft, what's next, suggesting that people shouldn't sing along with the choir?

SubDn. Lucas said...

Shh! That's the *next* post.

Fr. John N D'Alton said...

You are quite correct, given the usage in even pre-Christian Greek texts. So the etymological fallacy should be challenged. However, we must not lose sight of the words of the liturgy later in the service where the priest says "Let us offer the holy oblation in peace" meaning us=all the people. So theologically it is the work of all the people entering into the "Lord's work" as you said.

Huw Raphael said...

I enjoyed this when I first read it then, in discussion on facebook came to a slightly different idea that I'd like to offer for you consideration.

Sticking with your first definition,

What 'liturgy' actually meant to the Greek-speakers who chose to use it in the Scriptures was:
a public duty, which the richer citizens discharged at their own expense.* Examples of a 'liturgy': a private citizen paying to build a theatre, throwing a public festival, or building a war ship. It was the act of one for the benefit of all.


Grow for there to the Church as a religious minority in the Roman empire. Weave in the understanding of synergy. And that nearly-universalist Orthodox idea best expressed by the line "acquire the Holy Spirit and thousands around you will be saved" or, the reason we offer the liturgy - sung at every liturgy, "For all humankind".

God's action, yes: and we enter in, yes. But I suggest that it is that "entering in" that *is* the Liturgy. It is the action of Communion that is the Liturgy. And it does something, through us (God and his Church) for other people. The liturgy is something we (God and his Church) do for the public benefit of all mankind, using the tools and resources we hae that no one else has, we intercede for all and make present the kingdom in the midst of all by our Eucharistic action.