Liturgy, “the work of the people”? or not?

Theologian and writer, Maggie Dawn, reflects on the often quoted translation of “liturgy” as “the work of the people,” and argues that we may not be understanding this in the correct way.

What say you, good people?

Liturgy is NOT “the work of the people”

By Maggie Dawn writing in her blog, “Maggie Dawn”

I mentioned earlier that there is a current trend to define liturgy as “the work of the people”. I think this little phrase has gone viral partly because even among traditions that have never embraced the idea of “liturgy”, the rediscovery of ancient liturgy by the alternative, emerging and non-liturgical traditions has made everyone want to buy into the idea, and in addition, to stress that worship isn’t something put on by the clergy, the worship band or the local elders while everyone else looks on. For this much, who can complain? It’s brilliant if people want to get knee-deep in the creative, theatrical, devotional, theological treasure chest of liturgy, and it’s absolutely true that liturgy/worship should be participatory, not observatory.

The Greek word leitourgia derives from two root words – laos, the people, and ergas, a work. But the popular definition is highly misleading. Leitourgia was never actually used to mean “the work of the people”. It was, rather, a word that described acts of public service, usually initiated by a private benefactor. So, for instance, some wealthy person might build a temple or a town hall, foot the bill, but the work itself was for the community. Likewise, any public work done in service to the gods, but that would also benefit the community, would qualify as leitourgia. It’s work. And it’s about people. But it’s not the people’s work, it’s work that is for the people, and transformative of the wider world.

So liturgy might legitimately be said to be work for God, that transforms our world, and benefits people. But liturgy isn’t mine or yours. In short, it’s not about me.

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