Liturgy matters, and never more so than in a season like Advent
Throughout Christian history, a majority of Christians have used a liturgy in the sense of a set form of words, actions and rituals, as opposed to a free-form, open-ended kind of worship. This does not mean non-liturgical churches are totally disorganized — they often plan their services according to familiar patterns and models. But they do not follow the precise sequence of texts, passages or actions, which they regard as too formal and constricting. Still today, though, liturgical churches overwhelmingly represent the Christian norm. Once we take account of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Lutherans, that would probably represent three quarters of all Christians worldwide. Recently too, even historically non-liturgical churches have selectively adopted liturgical forms, in what some call an “ancient futures” movement.
Liturgy is a vast topic, which is the subject of very wide-ranging scholarship. Here, though, let me just suggest briefly why it is so central to church life, and never more so than in a season like Advent.
In its origins, the Greek word leitourgia meant “people’s work,” better translated as something like “public service” or “public duty.” In common usage, the word also refers to the liturgy, namely the particular service that culminates in the Eucharist or Holy Communion. A Catholic or Anglican liturgy includes various parts that together form a logical sequence and a unified whole, like a symphony. These include, for instance, such set-pieces as the Kyrie Eleison, the Gloria, the Creed, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).
So what does liturgy do, and why does it still exert its astonishing appeal after two millennia? Without any attempt to be definitive, let me offer my nine laws of liturgy:
- Liturgy takes us out and puts us in
Liturgy takes us out of the regular world and returns us to a sacred moment or sacred time. It is a way of putting us in touch with a particular reality, of converging and conforming our world with the supernatural. Liturgy thus explains why we are here but at the same time also places us somewhere else.
Paths cross here.
- Liturgy unites, making many one
The liturgy organizes and moves people through a common sense of participation, of shared action. It unites us and makes us a common body. We say and do things in the same way, we speak the same words and hear the same things and express agreement to them. It is communal action. To use the Anglican phrase, we all share in common (i.e., communal) prayer.
- That unity crosses boundaries of time and space
The fact that liturgy is fixed means that anywhere you go in the world, you will hear the same words and the same patterns. Services are not “dealer’s choice” in which any words or forms are permissible, and they don’t depend on the whims of particular leaders. That is also why we use the formal language appropriate to solemn things. Historic form and language are used to consecrate time.
When we share in a liturgy today, we are doing essentially the same thing that countless others were doing a hundred or a thousand years ago. Liturgy thus creates community and continuity with past and present, proclaiming a link with past and future. We see this, for example, when we repeat ancient Greek terms like Kyrie Eleison.
Language speaks us.
- Liturgy uses action to declare and reinforce common belief
The old phrase says lex orandi,lex credendi, “the law of prayer is the law of belief” — roughly, show me how you worship and I’ll know what you believe. Not just in its verbal statements, a Eucharist proclaims the Church’s basic teachings through what the participants say and do. Every moment, it teaches the idea of incarnation.