I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that “liturgy” means, “the work of the people.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said it myself. I, for one, won’t ever be saying it again. The reason for this is a test case in why linguistics, history, and etymology are important disciplines.
Here’s what Nicholas Wolterstorff1 has taught me:
As almost every book on liturgy points out, the English word “liturgy” is simply the transliteration of the Greek word leitourgia. In classical Greek the word was used to refer to a service performed by an individual for the benefit of the public, usually at his own expense. For example, if a warship had to be outfitted, sometimes, instead of taxing the citizenry as a whole, the officials invited a wealthy individual to do the outfitting as a personal contribution to the public. Such a public service was a liturgy, and the person performing it, a liturgete (leitourgos).
Etymologically the word leitourgia comes from two Greek words, leitos and ergon, meaning, respectively, “of the people” and “action.” In numerous books on liturgy it is said, accordingly, that the word originally meant action of the people. And often nowadays an argument for more participation of the people in the church’s liturgy is based on this claim. It is said that for something to be liturgy, it must be action of the people and not action of a few priests or pastors. But the word leitourgia never did mean action of the people. It meant action for the benefit of the people. A liturgy was a type of public service.
In the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, the word leitourgia was regularly borrowed from its Greek civic use and applied, by metaphorical extension, to the kind of service rendered by the priests in the temple. Apparently this was the best that could be done with the language of the day in translating the cultic language of the Old Testament into Greek. This metaphorical extension was continued in rabbinic usage of New Testament times and in the New Testament itself. For example, in Luke 1:23 we read of the priest Zechariah that “when his time of liturgy was ended, he went to his home.”
It is only a small step from speaking of the cultic acts of the temple priest as (his) liturgy to speaking of what transpires in the Christian assemblies as liturgy, or service.2
Whoa! Whether we liturgo-philes like it or not, etymologically speaking, it appears that “liturgy” is quite the opposite of the work of the people. It is the work for the people. We must be fair, then. We cannot argue that liturgy, linguistically, encourages corporate participation.
Why should this not rattle us, though? First, if anything, it gives more glory to God and his sovereignty. Even our “work” of liturgy is ultimately a “work” done to us, for our benefit. Sure, it may be mediated through “liturgetes,” but worship, ironically, ends up being God’s work on us, in us, through us, and sometimes in spite of us. Second, who cares what the etymology of the word is? Liturgy still is the work of the people. While the etymology of “liturgy” can’t defend this, scripture can. All over the sacred page are commands, admonishments, descriptions, and examples of active, communal engagement in the act of corporate worship. So, while “liturgy” doesn’t mean “the work of the people,” it certainly still is the work of the people. We don’t need etymology to prove that.
Perhaps this post is a bubble-burster for some of us. Reading Wolterstorff was for me. But maybe we can understand clarifications like these not as bubble-bursting, but as bubble-sharpening. It’s an important part of being truthful and authentic thinkers. So don’t kill the messenger, folks. If you take issue, contact Dr. Wolterstorff. I happen to really like this bubble. And, chances are, if you’ve come this far in reading this post, you do to. Cheers to the bubble!
1I’ve got Woltersorff on the brain because I’ll be hearing him lecture at the Bifrost Arts’ “Liturgy, Music, Space” Conference next week!
2Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Reformed Liturgy,” in Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition, ed. Donald K. McKim (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1998), 274.