Monday, May 09, 2022

Refuting the Commonplace that “Liturgy” Means “Work of the People”

In 2020, Angelico Press released a very interesting book entitled Christ the Liturgy by William Daniel. Serious students of liturgical theology should pick it up if they have not already done so. While I do not agree with all that the Anglican author presents, he offers unique perspectives I have not seen elsewhere and, in particular, makes a deft and profound use of both Church Fathers (Clement, Ignatius, Cyprian, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus) and modern philosophers (Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Voegelin, Gadamer, Pickstock).

Chapter 1, worth the price of the book all by itself, delves into true and false, or perhaps we should say truer and falser, meanings of the term leitourgia, “a word,” writes Daniel,

that has been mistranslated, the first instance of which appears to have been at The Fourth General Council of the Alliance of The Reformed Churches holding The Presbyterian System (London, 1888), whereby liturgy is translated as “the work of the people.” To speak of “the work of the people” assumes a work, an offering, or the human capacity to give something to God that God doesn’t have. Translating leitourgia as “the work of the people,” a distinctly post-Enlightenment translation, inverts the human’s relation to the salvific offering of the Son to the Father. That is, this redefining of liturgy elicits a lack in God—the lack of God’s own worship. Additionally, liturgy as the “work of the people” separates the liturgical action from the creative agency of the Son and the human’s volitive participation in the re-creating of the world, infinitely actualized—recapitulated—in Christ. The Transcendent is hereby absolutely transcendent; there is no mingling of God and creation. What is important to note at the outset is that to translate or (re)define leitourgia as “the work of the people” detracts from the inherent, relational nature of liturgy as that which gathers the people of God into the eternal life of reciprocity that is Holy Trinity. (1–2)
This mistranslation is very prominent among supporters of the liturgical reform in the Catholic Church. For example, Kevin W. Irwin in his book Responses to 101 Questions on the Mass (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1999) speaks of “the Greek term leiturgia, meaning “work of the people” (p. 31).

The author then looks carefully at instances of classical and patristic texts that employ the term leitourgia to make his case. His goal is 

to lay the foundation for understanding liturgy as the manifestation of divinity in Christ, attested to by the early and medieval church, and as the anagogic relation of participation that is the essence of the church Catholic. Liturgy is hereby to be understood not as “the work of the people” but as “the work of the One for the sake of the many.” Christ himself is this “work,” this event, who is the Liturgy he enacts—both priest and victim, an offering to the Father for the life of the world. (2)

In ancient Greek authors, leitourgia first means “public work” or “public service” (laos ergon), which often took the form of a sacrificial gift or financial offering without expectation of repayment, solely for the common good, such as sponsoring a festival or holding (without pay) a public office. In Aristotle, leitourgia names the bearing of a communal burden for the benefit of the many. Not just the rich who fund banquets, choruses, and lyric contests, but also priests, doctors, the miliary, and innkeepers are all “liturgists” in this context. It is always a gift of one for the sake of the many.

St. Paul uses the term in continuity with Plato and Aristotle to refer to the one who gathers and offers funds for the sake of the building up of the Church, in analogy with the priests of the temple who gather the offerings to give glory to God. Paul describes himself as a libation poured out for the people. The one ministers to and for the many:

Paul is the liturgy he enacts—Christ. His liturgical role is to serve as Christ, to gather the offerings of the faithful into the offering Jesus is in himself. Only in this way do the liturgical actions—offerings—of a people become bound to the offering of Jesus to the Father—the one, holy acceptable offering. (8)

In the first epistle of Clement, leitourgia points to the hierarchical office that belongs to the various members of the body, all acting in and through Christ to participate in His high-priestly offering; but most especially the bishop, whose role is to gather up the many into the One (11). “Leitourgia is a sacrificial offering to God, which is consequently beneficial to others” (12). 

Office and action, as in the ancient world, are inseparable in Christ. The hierarchical administration of the liturgical economy is a division of labor, not a partitioning of classes. Just as the bishop makes the people available to God, likewise do the people make God available to the bishop. There is a logic of reciprocity embedded in the action. By necessity of her communion with God, the Christian must be in fellowship with Christ’s holy church, through its bishops. (19) 

We are led to see from the sources that in no sense is liturgy understood as the working of the people at some activity that is primarily theirs to claim or to conduct. On the contrary, they are the receivers of the largesse of the Father in Christ poured out by the Spirit through the Church’s rites enacted in obedience by those who are in the position of rulers and benefactors, who bear the communal burden, who “put on” liturgy (so to speak). In this vision there is no competition between parts of the body, but only gratitude for the complementary roles that allow worship to come alive. God gives the offering to the priest, and the priest returns it to God for the people: “the work of the One”—Christ, or His hierarchical representative—“for the sake of the many.”

The politicization of the liturgy, the jockeying for roles, the spreading out of activities, appears therefore to be a fundamental misreading of the economy of worship, in which “God is the sole giver of gifts; and it is only God who can receive God. Abraham’s giving and receiving are to be understood, therefore, as a participation in the giving and receiving of God from and to God” (24).

Daniel reaches his conclusion, invoking a major theme of the theologians associated with Radical Orthodoxy: 

The commonplace (mis)translation of leitourgia as “the work of the people” describes a chasm between what Christians do when they gather to worship and who the God they confess to worship is. The modern translation of this term dislocates the human from the action of Christ, thereby suspending the gift from the recipient—giver and receiver remain separate. In a falsely humanistic attempt to emphasize the work of humans in liturgy, “the work of the people” actually narrates a deistic understanding of the human as completely separate from God, or univocally maintains a sameness between God and humanity in “Being.” (34)

Almost as a corollary, Daniel points out how this univocity traps God in a human construct and evacuates our experiences of the possibility of redemption:

Paul’s sufferings (cf. 2 Cor 4:8–12; Col 1:24) are the sufferings of Christ, born in his body, for the sake of the church. It is the cross that is paradigmatic for participating in divine action—in the Liturgy-Christ. The cross is also that which makes all suffering intelligible and meaningful. The oft-repeated notion that Christ suffers when we suffer is yet another aggrandizing of the human in relation to her sufferings. We must not invert the relation between the suffering of Jesus and the sufferings of humanity. Again, while it may at first seem to elevate the suffering of humans to say that God suffers with us, it has the adverse effect of flattening human suffering as something that in no way transcends the present sensation of pain. What makes human suffering meaningful is that it participates in the bodily suffering of God on the cross. (35–36) 

At the end of the chapter, Daniel ties together his research into a thundering critique of the contemporary misappropriation of a noble ancient term:

We have seen how liturgy as “the people’s work” locates a person’s identity in her own hands—the human nature entirely separable from divinity—a liturgical nominalism, as it were. Naming, as it does, the service of worship of the church, liturgy has been mistaken to be humanistic in the worst sense of the term. It has been wrongly understood as an isolated act in time, either performed by a professional class of persons (clergy) for an audience (laity) or enacted collectively as a body of people (priesthood of all believers), which can only be assented to by faith, not participated in through the reason of the body.
          In each instance the understanding is the same: God has given salvation to those who follow Christ; Christians, therefore, perform liturgies to offer thanks and praise for the gift of salvation. The assumption here is that the baptized have a gift to offer unto Almighty God, i.e., their selves. To say that the human has something she can give—even herself—to God, is to suggest that a person possesses within her being the capacity to initiate contact with God, thereby inverting the Creator-created relation. It is at once a rejection of human contingency and a denial of God as his own absolute contingency. God becomes somehow dependent on creation.
          This “self-possession” is the ultimate affront by the created to her Creator; it is the sin of all sins—it is Adam and Eve. Leitourgia as illuminated throughout the writings of the early fathers refuses both the Gnostic rejection of matter and the humanist departure from metaphysics. The modern mistranslation is more than a matter of semantics; it is an ontological chasm. (38–39)

He returns to this point at the start of chapter 4, providing an especially helpful summary of his position, which certainly shares much in common with the traditionalist critique of the radical branch of the Liturgical Movement and its triumph in the post-Vatican II liturgical reform with its humanist, activist, utilitarian, consumerist, and reductionist assumptions and stylings:

What is often misunderstood about liturgical action, specifically as it regards Christian liturgy, is that it is neither performative nor initiative. That is, it is not a performance before God to somehow please God or curry favor, nor is the Christian to understand herself as one who initiates contact with God. As outlined in the first chapter, this is a gross misrepresentation of liturgy that stems from a mistranslation and misunderstanding of the word and meaning of leitourgia. Any claim that liturgy is instigated by, or an experience simply to be taken in or enjoyed by, humans reduces liturgical action to a temporary, flattened affair that has little or nothing to do with God, save the gross objectification of the same. Such a reduction bears an implicit, disenchanted anthropology, a conception of humanity that is biological at best and animalistic at worst.
          Liturgy, however, does not originate in human action, even though it implicates humanity in its activity and elicits human participation. Liturgy is the creative agency of God who in Christ has gathered human nature into divine reciprocity, a reciprocity that is without beginning or end. The human’s participation in this eternal action is medial by nature. That is, the human is caught up in the divine self-relation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Liturgy hereby names the self-relation of eternal reciprocity that God himself is. To worship, therefore—to participate in the liturgical action—is to be involved in an action that begins outside of human agency yet implicates the human in divine agency. (121–22)

Based on this conclusion, Daniel then goes on later in the book to emphasize that liturgy is “medial”—that is, neither pure activity on our part, nor pure passivity, but both and neither, like the “middle voice” of some ancient languages.

One way to say this, however awkward it might strike the modern English-speaker’s ear, would be to say, “I was gathered into the offering of the Son to the Father.” Shorthand would be modestly simpler: “I participated in the self-offering of God today.” (127) 

One can see the care with which he banishes the idea that the worshipers are the primary agents, which has been the bane of liturgical reform for the past hundred years, and has led to many absurdities: making everyone say all the responses and do all the actions together in lockstep; giving clerical tasks to laity; opening up space for creative and spontaneous expression and motion on the part of the clergy; the statement that “I like Fr. So-and-so’s Mass best”; mobilizing the chickabiddies to make felt banners for their first communions; erupting into applause for the efforts of musicians or other groups; and so forth. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that the entire framework of the Liturgical Movement was always tainted with a certain Pelagianism, with what Jordan Aumann called “the heresy of activism.” The middle voice was lost: the insertion into the action of God that begins before we even exist and is eternally simple, circular, fruitful, and silent. Daniel concludes:

Liturgy, hereby, is not a matter of self-expression. It is not to be governed by the whims of any one individual’s sensibilities. Rather, liturgy is the confluence of linguistic worlds which have passed through the torcular of Christ, who is the wine press of God…. It is in this sense that liturgical mediality can be understood as an active-passivity, perhaps our best way of pointing toward the middle voice. It is a giving of ourselves to an action happening to us, to an agency that is not our own. Hereby do we become leitourgia—the work of God. We become Christ in proportion to our participation in the work of the One, which is for the sake of the many. (157–58)

To sum up: leitourgia does not mean “the work of the people.” It means “the work of One on behalf of many.” This definition is properly theocentric and Christocentric; it justifies, even as it relativizes, the “sacerdotalism” (in Dix’s expression) of all traditional liturgical rites.

There is much else of value in this book, such as its treatment of church architecture in chapter 3 (about which I will write separately). I encourage you to check it out.

William Daniel. Christ the Liturgy. Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2020. 206 pp. Paper ISBN 978-1621385554, $17.95. Cloth ISBN 978-1621385561, $32.00.

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