The languages of the word ‘liturgy’

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.


  1. I heard, when I was in formation for the diaconate that “when Rome sneezes, Lutherans get a cold”. As a Pastor, my wife and I attended the excellent “Ecumenical Theology from a Roman Catholic Perspective” at the Centro Pro Unione in 2003 and came away with a much “clunkier” application of the Sunday morning Eucharist than we were expecting. Now it is starting to make more sense to me.

    I am stocking up on tissues and fluids for our onset of a “liturgical cold” coming our way. Thanks for the warning. Perhaps I can help develop a vaccine?

    1. You do know that Lizette is Episcopalian, Dave, don’t you? I think that Rome has not sneezed so far. 🙂
      Anyway, Pope Francis’s recent (June) apostolic letter Desiderio desideravi says explicitly that liturgy is always the action of a single subject: Christ-Church. That does not dispose of all the questions raised in the post, of course, but I find this particular “word from Rome” helpful. At the very least, it disposes of the notion that the priest does the liturgy on behalf of the people.

      1. thanks Rita, I think Desiderio desideravi is one of several helpful statements which return us to the action of the whole body of Christ (not leaving off the head!) as the actor, which includes the transformative ‘work’ that God does on us through the liturgy. I think increasingly (meaning, post-pandemic realities) I find myself concerned about the theological conversations happening among the ‘experts’ – like us! and how we share the excitement, the centrality, the importance, and the essential-ness of theology in our parochial settings – theology for everyone!

  2. I was listening to an Orthodox priest describe the relationship between the Old Testament priesthood and the Christian priesthood this past year and he spoke of the concentric circles of the priesthood. The high priest (bishop) would be in the center. The next circle would be the priests(presbyters) who are then followed the Levities and their family members (deacons and the minor orders). The last circle of the priesthood would the rest of the People of Israel (laity). And all of these would be encircled by the Nations & all of Creation. In this schema, the laity serve as priests for the nations/all of creation.

    Deacons serve as priests for the laity and the nations/creation. And priests then serve for the benefit of the deacons, the laity, and the nations. At the center, bishops would act on behalf of all.

    Applying this framework to the liturgy, from a “bird’s eye view”, liturgy is first the action of God on behalf of the world through the Church and also the work of Church on behalf of the world. A more granular view on the subject of the Church, you would see the concentric circles I described above. So liturgy is a work done by the laity on behalf of the world. And priests offer the liturgy on behalf of the laity and all of creation.

  3. Thanks, Lizette, for raising this important discussion.
    The Christology we assume when considering this question is important (in line with Rita’s response). Mark Searle put in terms of Christ’s mediation in the liturgy, that it is not that Christ comes “between” us and God, but rather, “standing in Christ, we encounter God.” His description in *Called to Participate: Theological, Ritual, and Social Perspectives* (Liturgical Press, 2006), 84-85, of our role in the priestly office of Christ as we express it liturgically runs like this:

    “We do not stand around the altar simply for our own benefit but because it is our vocation to stand before God on behalf of the world… We thank you [God] that you have counted us worthy
    to serve you on behalf of those who do not know you;
    to pray on behalf of those who do not know how to pray;
    to intercede for those who cannot plead for themselves;
    to hear the word for those whose ears are attuned elsewhere;
    to cry for mercy for those who do not know they need it;
    to offer sacrifice on behalf of those who do not know that death and suffering have been redeemed;
    to celebrate communion for the lost and the lonely;
    to serve you for those who do not know how to serve;
    to thank you on behalf of those who do not know the name that is blessed above all other names.”

    So, as Rita indicates from Pope Francis, it is “Christ-Church” in the liturgical work (a redundant phrase) of this priestly office.

    But also to add an idea of Rosemary Haughton’s, who distinguished in *The Transformation of Man* (Templegate, 1967, 1980) between “formation” and “transformation” – the Church (inclusive of both ordained/ministerial and baptismal priesthood) in its work can only ever provide formation–transformation is always God’s work in/for us.

    So not just who is working on behalf of whom, but also what kind of work.

    1. Thank you David, I think many corners of the church catholic have over-emphasized the formation aspect – or liturgy as a didactic classroom exercise – to the impoverishment of transformation (God’s work in/for us) as you say. Yes, I was channeling Mark Searle a bit there – thank you for naming that. I had forgotten Rosemary Haughton’s work of several decades ago – what a wonderful addition !

  4. Speaking as a non-expert in liturgy, yet as a recipient of biblical and liturgical sources and the wisdom from liturgical experts, I have often heard or read that we do Sacred and Divine Liturgy for the life of this world.

    Upon deeper reflection, this indicates that we are co-creators with God (Genesis 2: 15; 19-20; John 1: 12-14; John 5: 17; 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21). That is we are partner-shipping with the Creator because the Creator desires this very union with its creation. The Eucharistic Liturgy is the primal expression of this.

    We all have work to do, Alleluia!

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