As many readers know, my area of specialization in the area of liturgy is the meaning of words. Every word has its own history and rich layers of meaning. It can be fascinating to learn a new nuance, or a deeper level of meaning in a word. In this article, I want to focus on the meaning of the word “liturgy” itself.
“Work of the people”
There was a popular understanding common for quite a number of years that the word “liturgy” came from two Greek words. One meant “work” and the other, “people.” As the popular etymology went, the liturgy is the “work of the people
.” That is, we gather as a community, we express ourselves as community, we pray together. The focus of this understanding of liturgy is on our activity. The first question one asks with respect to celebrations under this understanding of the liturgy is, “What should we do?”
It seems that this is the common understanding of the word “liturgy” that many have received, and therefore how the liturgy itself is perceived. The requirement of the liturgy under this understanding is that it both express the characteristics of the community and be immediately engaging in its external forms. Perhaps consideration of God enters in, but this is a secondary consideration.
Opus Dei (“Work of God”)
The most common term for liturgy in the Rule of St. Benedict, on the other hand, is the “Work of God
.” This is exactly the opposite of claiming that the liturgy is the “work of the people.” In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there is a discussion of the meaning of the word “liturgy:”
The word ‘liturgy’ originally meant a “public work” or a “service in the name of/on behalf of the people.” In Christian tradition it means the participation of the People of God in “the work of God.” Through the liturgy Christ, our redeemer and high priest, continues the work of our redemption in, with, and through his Church.
This seems to be in direct contrast with the notion of the liturgy as “work of the people.” Here, the focus is not on the congregation first, but on God.
The original sense of the word clearly suggests this second meaning. The word liturgy does in fact come from two Greek words and one of them in fact does mean “work.” The other Greek root is a very peculiar and ancient word from the dialect spoken in Athens, and it means not “people,” but “public.” The interpretation given by the Catechism is much more accurate from a scholarly point of view.
What difference does it make?
As I mentioned, holding that the liturgy is “the work of the people,” has had an enormous, and not particularly positive impact on our understanding of the liturgy. With this understanding, the goodness of the liturgy is based on how well we express the individual characteristics of a community and whether the external forms we use are interesting to the people attending. Conversion, renewal and formation do not play an integral part in preparation for the liturgy in this understanding. Rather, immediacy and directness are the greatest values.
The more accurate sense, though, is that the liturgy is first something that God does as a public work for the betterment of his people. In this case, the first question regarding both the liturgy’s inner meaning and its celebration is not “What should we
do?” Rather, the first thing that should be asked is “What is God
doing for us?” This understanding of the liturgy holds that the liturgy is already, by its nature, the most interesting and engaging thing that takes place in the world, because God does it. God is not boring! We ourselves, on the other hand, may require conversion, renewal and formation to recognize, receive and enter into the awe inspiring gift that God is giving to us.
Getting this order of understanding correct is one of the most important things for truly reaping the spiritual benefit that the liturgy has to offer. It is not that we determine the forms of the liturgy, nor that we create things to do during the liturgy. Rather, with great attentiveness to the movements of God’s own love for us, we enter deeply into the mystery of the incarnation, of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, of the Last Supper, and of the trinitarian life.
The primary and fundamental posture we should have in the liturgy is therefore one of active receptivity. God goes out of Himself to give Himself to us in love. We receive that gift of God, not in a purely passive way, but engaging God with our whole self. “Active participation” means to enter into this reality of God’s self-gift, especially in the sacred event of the cross. Our activity in the liturgy is primarily contemplative. When the liturgy is reduced to activism, we unfortunately miss the inner dynamic of prayer and encounter with God that is available to us.
Once the focus is transferred from our own activity to God’s activity, the fact that the form of the liturgy is given in advance in its structure and particular details is itself instructive. We do not create the liturgy. It is something given. We receive both the exterior form of the liturgy and the interior content, which is God coming to meet us and give Himself to us. May God, who gives Himself to us in the liturgy, enlighten our minds and quicken our desires to truly receive the manifold graces He wishes to give to us in the sacred liturgy.