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Monday, July 07, 2008
On the Meaning of Liturgy....

Some years back I spoke at a youth retreat in Texas. As the students were gathering for the Saturday morning worship session the band (Group from Canada called "Down Here")  did a most unusual thing. As the band members tuned their instruments and prepared to play, the leader issued a biblical call to worship. Just as everyone was ready to sing their hearts out to God he asked them to leave the building picking up cleaning supplies at the door and go and assist the camp staff in cleaning up the camp. “Meet back here in half an hour,” were his last words. It struck me at the time as a really good notion of liturgy. Worship ceased to be just another enjoyable experience of emotive, passionate singing to God and became “the work of the people.”

Liturgy, that is to say worship, is work. A fascinating connection exists in the Hebrew language between the words worship and work. They are the same word. One of the Hebrew definitions for worship is abad. It means literally to till or work the soil, providing interesting connections to humanity’s original commission in the Garden of Eden. The primary New Testament word is leitouriga, meaning the work or service of the people. Other definitions get at the idea of bowing low or prostrate before a person of royal importance.

Liturgy designs to gather a dislocated collection of individuals into a corporately embodied unity in the presence of God to work. Worship is the most important work in all the world. What does this work look like? In worship we rehearse the gospel, declaring the glories of God while gathering up the whole creation as an offering and making intercession for the nations. In worship we confess our sins, both personal and corporate, drink from the cup of forgiveness and feast on the bread of life. Our worship work does not prepare for service in God’s Kingdom, it declares and demonstrates the Kingdom itself. Our worship, which is to say our work, resides in inhabiting the Story of God to the glory of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in a servant ministry of reconciliation to the whole World.  

So why does "liturgy" get such a bad wrap?  or is it rap?  


posted by John David Walt | at 7/07/2008 04:58:00 PM



Anonymous John D. Palmer said...

Liturgy gets a bad rap in the same way that "traditional service" gets a bad rap. People don't know what it means most of the time AND if they do know what it means the kind of cultural stigma's that we put on the word "work" and "service" make it in many eyes an even worse word. We have many people who don't like their "work" or when they hear the word "work" conjure images of pain and toil.

If you invite folks to examine deeply the meaning and/or even are able to convince them of trying liturgy just once. So much of time it becomes a "okay I tried it I don't like it don't bother me with it again" thing. Its like we have folks who given a choice would listen to one song over and over and over again rather than choose different melodies.

Despite its meaning liturgy gets another bad rap when folks that are so convinced of its legitimacy in worship use it to strike up political or social overtones. I remember in seminary that it was a big deal if one of the students wrote the liturgy for that day's chapel service. And what we would have is these lengthy politically correct and gender neutral diatribes in which we all expected to participate. If you had an opinion that was counter to that liturgy it would be lost.

It all goes back to teaching AND presentation. If we don't teach continually the importance of liturgy in worship. Then it won't be important. If when we participate in corporate worship and there is liturgy that is presented dry and without energy, without a sense of "this person knows what they are saying" it becomes a "rote" exercise for the congregation who allows it to pass by without any mental or spiritual cognition.

We got to work at doing our work.

10:12 AM EDT  
Blogger drew said...

i know in the circles I grew up in, liturgy is often equated with institutional life. For many, the idea of institutional church carries a lot of bad stigmas with it; rituals that are empty (not in symbol, but in heart), songs and prayers that are worn thin and often repeated to the point that they lose their meanings, and services (or works) that do not require any sacrifice or reflection on Christ's sacrifice. Sad, but i think you can see it in some of the practice of the faith of the larger Church--a going-through-the-motions faith emptied a lot of liturgical practices of their punch. They became an end instead of a means to a larger purpose, thus robbing liturgy of its Kingdom-demonstrating abilities.

I know at our church, we're always aiming to recover liturgy, not abandon it. We practiced Advent for the first time in our life as a body this past Christmas, and it blew people's minds. Some had never heard of it, and some had practiced it for years with no context or clue as to what it was about or why it was important.

Perhaps in some ways, liturgy, or the true service or work of worship, has to be re-invented, or at least re-framed, so that what we've lost culturally in the practice of corporate worship can be restored to its proper position. I think this process will always push us back into the story of God and the church...which is a great thing...and ultimately back to a place where our hearts can freshly respond to Christ.

This may present some fresh takes and variations on ancient practices, but it will move us back to (or towards)the work of worship.

6:27 PM EDT  
Blogger J.D. Walt said...

john-- you make some nice contrasts in the different takes people have on liturgy. i tend to agree with you. it is an interesting connection you make with work conjuring up images of pain and toil. this is precisely the curse in genesis 3 concerning working the land. in chapter 2, we see the hebrew word abad used for "tilling" the land-- the privileged stewardship of humanity. this term-- abad, is a worship word. could our own worship assemblies become places where the curse of work (i.e. toiling) becomes transformed into the blessing of work (i.e. tilling)

and you are so right on your liturgy held hostage by political agendas comment. so sad.

drew-- i love the way you talk about "Kingdom demonstrating abilities" of liturgy. that's a nice concept. I also like your thought about liturgy as simply going through the motions. so true. a people who have lost touch with the MOVEMENT are resigned to simply going through the motions. we need the movement back don't we. and you are exactly right re-inventing and re-framing liturgy. we work hard at this with our chapel at the seminary. (not in the way john references, though). i use terms like re-traditioning or re-contextualizing the liturgy. liturgy, in my judgment, simply aims to bring the GREAT MOVEMENT of the Gospel and the Kingdom into forms that fit the day and age. how can the tradition effectively accomodate new forms? this is the challenge of much of modern or contemporary worship-- which tends to allow the culture to drive the forms at the expense of the content. it, too, over time results in the "motions" taking precedence over the "movement." perhaps in both instances, high formal and low informal, we see enculturating motions at work rather than transforming movements.

11:47 PM EDT  
Blogger JAy. said...


Thanks for starting the discussion here. Having grown up Catholic, I followed the traditional liturgy throughout the service. To be honest, I don't know that I ever considered the meaning too deeply, just followed along, participated as I should, and then went out the door on my merry way.

I like the idea of bringing the movement or meaning back into liturgy. I do not think that this requires re-writing or redesigning the traditional liturgy, though. Perhaps by simply bringing to light the deeper meaning would stir people to movement. I could see this as an interesting sermon series - breaking down the liturgy line by line for meaning.

Reminds me also of a task I went through personally a while back. I went back through the Lord's Prayer line by line and considered each phrase. I don't think that I had ever really considered this prayer in this way.

It is amazing the insight we can get when we go back to the tools that previous generations have left us so that we can really consider what they mean.

3:01 PM EDT  
Blogger Kendra said...

"How can the tradition effectively accomodate new forms?"

I'm not here to answer the question, but I just read an amazing article written back in 1978. It is a condensed version of Melito of Sardis' sermon, including a little of the tradition behind it (latter 2nd Century).

Apparently, the church celebrated Easter the same time as the Jewish Passover. They would fast as a body and then gather for a vigil that night, including a sermon. Melito used the artistic expression of his day from the secular world to form this sermon. It is such a great poetic-type read, especially knowing the backdrop of the tradition.

I SO wish I was in the audience, fasting together and gathering...and hearing Melito present this art form all about the Chrisitan meaning of Passover.

And to know that he did this in the time when the church was wrestling and struggling with understanding the natures of Christ (man/God). What a bold and creative way to reinterpret tradition that had developed.

Here's the Christianity Today info:

Melito of Sardis, "The Man Was Christ," trans. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Christianity Today, March 24, 1978, 23-26.

You'll have to dig to find the old article, but he has some great expressions and thoughts. Yes! Creativity, rich tradition, unity of the body...

12:18 AM EDT  
Blogger J.D. Walt said...

thanks kendra. we use melito's "on pascha" every year at Easter time. i'm not sure if this is what you are referencing. if not-- google "on pascha" and you will be stunned again.

11:51 PM EDT  

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