Let’s talk about the word ‘liturgy’ for a minute. I know, this group uses the word a lot, and many have written erudite articles on the word as well as woven it into their PrayTellBlog writings, but it may be time to ponder anew the power of etymology alone as theology.
Beginning with my own pastoral experience, I will probably scream if I hear one more preacher tell us that “liturgy means the work of the people” as I did (again) several weeks ago. “No”, I scream silently from my listening spot – we dealt with this several decades ago now (and through the work of several scholars). Leitourgia is better translated “a work done on behalf of the people”, as we all dutifully learned in our classes from Fr. Anscar Chupungco and others.
But who is doing what on behalf of whom in this more recent (but ancient) analysis of a word which is a theology? In the broad interpretation of the word many assume that what we mean is that the gathered community is “doing” the work of the liturgy on behalf of others – on behalf of the world. This works well within the larger framework articulated by liturgical scholars such as Louis-Marie Chauvet with the integral relationships between and movement from scripture to liturgy to ethics, or in line with Kevin Irwin’s articulation of lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. In less skilled hands though, this work that ‘we the people do’ may end up being understood as affecting only our personal actions (not the worst outcome), rather than the broader ethical demands on us that radiate out into larger circles.
From a different perspective, “a work done on behalf of the people” is becoming a favourite of – for lack of better words – more conservative liturgical restoration movements. Here, the restored translation from the Greek understands the work for the people as a work of the clergy for the laity. The ritual, particularly sacramental rituals, but also blessings and more, are done for the people, whose ritual passivity is welcomed as a sign of authorization and reception. For some newly ordained, this understanding embodies the distinction between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of all believers which has been ‘eroded’ in the wholesale emphasis on the centrality of baptism. The primary act that priests in particular do then is to “do” the liturgy for all who have gathered in presence and proximity. This does not necessarily exclude the liturgy also being a work benefiting those not present in the room – it often has ramifications for the living and the dead – but with regard to the work of the liturgy, it is the clerical-lay dynamic which is experientially central.
A third circle of thinking about liturgy as a work done on behalf of or for others is arising in postcolonial scholarship, particularly postcolonial liturgical theology. This approach overlaps with the second understanding that the work is done by the clergy for the laity. But here, unsurprisingly, it is about power in shaping and limiting the plurality of ritual expressions. Those holding this power may very well be clergy, but the other suspect group are liturgical experts – academics and scholars – who limit the breadth of liturgical imagination in the work of the people and proceed to shape the liturgy on behalf of the people. “People follow liturgies as prescribed, but they also do whatever they want with them.” (Cláudio Carvalhaes, “Liturgy and Postcolonialism: An Introduction”) The shape of this discourse may be centred in the reception (or non-reception) of official liturgy, or more likely, in concentric circles of ‘popular religiosity’ around the liturgical rituals of the ‘experts.’
I suspect for some Christians there is still a fourth understanding of liturgy as a ‘work done on behalf of others’ in which the ‘Other’ is God. One comes to church in order to offer prayers to God and meet some minimal requirements demanded by God. In doing so God’s demands are met (or the demands of the ecclesial rules are met), and a fulfilment of obligation has been met on behalf of the one who has ‘done’ the liturgy demanded (or at least expected) by God. Liturgy is the ‘work of the people’ for God – who receives the labours of the week and marks the duty roster as completed. And those who have done the ‘work’ are off the hook of any lasting obligations during the week.
All four of these possible interpretations have matured in some circles since Vatican II, particularly as the late 1960s and through the 1970s understood the “work of the people” meaning choosing the music, the art & environment, and many of the prayers affecting the sight and sound of the official liturgy. What does the word ‘liturgy’ mean now? I propose that if we argue for a return to etymological purity, “a work done on behalf of the people”, we need to articulate a clearer liturgical theology of who is doing what for whom. It will require an ongoing catechesis on liturgy particularly for our most common Sunday morning pattern of a eucharistic liturgy to counter the enduring cultural emphasis on entertainment in North America (only heightened by the pandemic embrace of the virtual). That same catechesis in the importance of theology will need to include the reality that being baptized immerses one in the reality that one cannot not participate – we have put on Christ. And that identity in and of Christ is not only one of singing all the verses of hymns, but of living as Christ for the world.
In the parochial adoption of various positions on liturgical theology, at least two other related conversations regarding the work of the people are often missing. The first is the important (and ecumenical) re-articulations that God is also at work in the liturgy and on us presented over the past few decades by Michael Aune, John Baldovin, Kevin Irwin, and others. It is God who summons us to draw near together, and God who initiates and draws us into the human and divine encounter. The problem with God working on us is that we might not be able to control the outcome, which aside from being the point, would be problematic to those who prefer to assume that we control the liturgy as well as the effect liturgy has on others. The second is that most of the working models of liturgical theology derived from the etymology of the word ‘liturgy’ are pointed toward the ‘results’ or effect of the liturgy. What if the joy of liturgy was in its very celebration, in this time and place outside of time and place? It is difficult not to think of someone like David Brown (God and Enchantment of Place) arguing for liturgy approached and celebrated as an event of beauty in encounter, in sensual delight, in the joy of glorifying God, rather than in an instrumentalist way.
As the majority of worshiping communities return to the presence and proximity of our whole selves in one place and time, it might be a good time to revisit what we mean by the word “liturgy”, what our worshiping communities mean by the word “liturgy”, and how it fits in the larger context of ‘worship’ as a way of life – a way of continuous prayer and service to God.