My incredibly talented friend Sommer is back today discussing the word liturgy for this week’s edition of Word Nerd Wednesday.
When the term liturgy is uttered, many evangelical Christians not accustomed to a liturgical church setting will define it as special words said at special times. Those is a liturgical church may define liturgy as the appropriate words said at the appropriate times. But there is more to liturgy than both of these definitions.
Liturgy, in fact, is a word closely related to ritual. If ritual is the word we use to define an ordered service to God, then liturgy is the means by which we order the service. Ritual may be the path, but liturgy is the shoes we put on to walk the path. n this sense, liturgy is what leads us to God. And yet, it is even more than that.
The word liturgy comes from the Greek leitos, of the people, and ergon, work. We see the word as leitourgia in Greek, public duty. Though it has a secular sense, in Christendom, it is the word that denotes priestly service and what Christians do to worship, serve in duty to, God. Luke 1:8 is a lovely example of this word, concerning John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah. “Now while he was serving as priest (leitourgia) before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.”
Zechariah’s liturgy involved serving God by entering the temple and burning incense. Although prayers and scripture reading are usually associated with liturgy, make note that liturgy also includes physical actions performed by the priest.
We tend to divide ritual and liturgy into actions and words, but notice how interconnected the two really are. Just as Christ is known to be fully man and fully God, our present day relationship with Christ involves fully material things and fully spiritual things, that is if we indeed engage in liturgy. Liturgy involves words and actions specific to walking into the presence of God.
Communal Benefits of Liturgy
There is one more aspect left to be addressed.
Liturgy benefits the individual, but it is effective because of its communal nature. Liturgy binds the community of Christians into a powerful force for spreading the gospel of Christ.
Our modern liturgy (as opposed to ancient ritualistic practices attempting to find and serve any given god) developed directly from the early church as the apostles began teaching and leading others in this new faith of The Way, Christianity. They taught, they broke bread, they shared in community.
It was unavoidable that some ritual would develop from these practices. It was necessary and it made sense. The new church appropriated a certain form of worship from the Jewish customs.They read scriptures, taught, and shared in communion—which took the place of animal sacrifices. But these services did not simply take on a Jewish formation; they fulfilled the Jewish order as Christ fulfilled all the Jewish promises for a Savior.
Father C. Maxwell-Stewart highlights Christ’s fulfillment of Jewish liturgies better than I can in his 1996 article for Faith Magazine:
“When Jesus came He went to all the key feast days in the temple and publicly claimed to be, in person, the fulfillment and real meaning of the liturgies which were being celebrated. During the new year festival of lights he said: “I am the Light of the world”, In the middle of the feast of the purification of the temple, when the altar and sanctuary were awash with water, he cried out: “If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink.” Around the Passover feast of unleavened bread one year he taught: “I am the Bread of Life.” He even proclaimed that His own Body is the new temple, the holy of holies, where God dwells among men and we enter into communion with Him.”
All those liturgies that the Jewish people practiced for centuries were suddenly filled by Christ. So when the new church emerged, they did not abandon what they had done before, but they recognized Christ in everything. It is important to realize that they did not try to come up with a religion, as some are in the habit of doing, but they began to see the realities of Christ imposed on their daily lives. This, in turn, created the church.
God Knew We Needed the Liturgy
Of course, we know this was the doing of the Holy Spirit and certainly not the work of any man. All the more interesting then, isn’t it? God knew the liturgies that we needed. Even though localities may enrich a liturgy with certain bits of cultural norm, the basics of liturgy, which come from scriptures, are the staying elements. God knew what would lead us to him; His word, His Spirit.
So when scripture needed to be read, it was brought forward. Liturgy. A prayer was said. Liturgy. “The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.” Liturgy. When bread and wine were needed, they were brought forward. Liturgy. A prayer was said. “The body of our Lord. Take and eat.” Liturgy. The sign of the cross. Liturgy. This was it. These were the shoes Christians put on to walk into God’s presence. And these shoes are still in use today.
It was taught to and fro as Christianity spread. There were local varieties, but we can see even from the earliest churches that Christians valued publicly these things: giving thanks to God, sharing in communion elements, praying the Lord’s prayer, singing hymns, and even crossing themselves. Early believers felt no apprehension to this crossing of themselves as a way to identify on a regular basis with the suffering and victory of Christ. Around 200BC, church father Tertullion wrote, “We Christians wear out our foreheads with the sign of the cross.”
The Heart of Liturgy
Can you see the heart in these rituals? The heart is the liturgy. It is humble and serious service; worship given in spirit and in truth. Liturgy is not marked by the personality of a worship leader, but by the personality of the one we worship, Christ fully God and fully man.
So what is liturgy? Suddenly it seems quite complex. Liturgy is not simply specific words, nor is a liturgical service merely a more formal setting for worship. Here is my assessment: liturgy is the communal acts of worship that Christians employ as their souls are formed into the likeness of Christ. It comes from the holy Scriptures and practices of early Christians.
I will leave you with one final quote from Maxwell-Stewart: “The primary purpose of the Church’s liturgical worship is not to express our feelings towards God, but to express and impress the Personality of Christ upon us.”
Impress upon me, Oh God, to be made into your image.
Sommer holds a degree in music from Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, where she also studied composition and communications. She has produced and recorded two CD’s of original works, featuring her skills as a singer-songwriter. They can be purchased here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/naphtalia/id318459763
She has written musical scores for both plays and movies and directed a variety of plays and musicals during her 6 years as a K-12 music educator and high school choir director. She especially loves writing wedding processionals for her friends.
Over the past 19 years, Sommer has led worship in a wide variety of contexts including large non-denominational churches, home gatherings, Army chapel services, youth groups, children’s services, women’s Bible study programs, a Baptist church in Rome, Italy and many more. Each context has brought her into more discussion amongst friends and colleagues as to what worship really means. Her study of worship began with a desire to choose good worship songs as a teenager and has now become a lifelong inquiry.
Sommer’s most recent project, writing the musical score for the independent film, “The Circle,” finished this past summer. (Connect here.) https://www.facebook.com/christcompanyresources/?fref=ts She is now focusing on mothering three incredibly cute children, loving and encouraging her dear husband, drinking the perfect amount of coffee, and rotating her chores at reasonable intervals at her home in Concord, North Carolina.
She attempts to create beauty occasionally at her blog Naphtalia. https://naphtalia.wordpress.com/
She does not tweet on the twitter or snap on the chat or do cool-kid type things, mostly because she’s trying to make an espresso before her children wake from their naps.
Should you wish to connect further, feel free to comment below and she will respond accordingly.
Linking Up With
For more encouragement please join the discussions on these fabulous blog link ups – Suzanne Eller, Thought Provoking Thursday, Susan B. Mead, Faith Filled Friday, Grace and Truth, Faith and Fellowship Friday, Grace and Truth Friday, Good Morning Monday, Soul Survival, Monday Musings, Rah Rah Link Up, Tell His Story, Woman to Woman Wednesday, Women With Intention Wednesday, Sitting Among Friends, Testimony Tuesday, Planting Roots, and Fresh Market Friday.