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Liturgy, The Verb

This essay is based on Hebrews 8:1-3, "Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a liturgist in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer.” 

Lutherans are familiar with the word liturgy, but it’s a hazy term for many. We know that the Service we follow on Sunday is sometimes referred to as “the liturgy,” but what does that mean?

Liturgy has a secular meaning in Greek literature. It means to do one’s duty and is used of matters such as paying taxes, or performing military service. But secular usage doesn’t get us where we’re going because liturgy is a technical term for the church. But it isn’t just a noun, it also has a verbal form: to liturgize.

What’s the difference between worshiping and liturgizing? Worship is an element of liturgy, but to liturgize God means more. It means to sacrifice oneself to God, which means that one dispossesses himself of his life, and passes it over altogether, into the hands of God. This is something that no man can do but the thing that the crucified, risen and glorified Lord does for us. The greatest liturgy ever performed is the Lord’s death on the cross, wherein the Son, in loving submission to the Father, offered his life in liturgy for the life of the world. Again we see actions: his death; united with words: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. (Luke 23:46). That is liturgy.

Our speech pattern is also important. It is better to speak of “liturgy” rather than “the liturgy” as if liturgy were something outside of ourselves. Liturgy is what Christians do, but not on their own. We learn from the above passages that Jesus is our true liturgist. Mark that well. The minister is his proxy, but Jesus is the one who appears in the congregation each week, just like he did with the disciples in the upper room. He is the actual celebrant in the Christian assembly. But he never liturgizes God apart from his Bride the church, but always with her. Thus, through baptismal and Eucharistic union with Christ, the church also enters the holy places on high and has fellowship with God. This is liturgy.

Liturgy necessarily implies ritual, script and ceremony even in heaven according to the Revelation of St. John. It means that all God’s people say the same thing at the same time because in Christ they are one. And not just notionally. Divine liturgy is no charade or spontaneous assembly. Per St. Paul (Romans 15:6) the church: glorifies the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with one voice. Thus liturgy is the orderly and intentional action of the church. And it is the script, ceremony and ritual, as well as the content, that sets this assembly apart from all others. This is not an ordinary convocation of like-minded people like a Rotary Club banquet: but an encounter with God! And there is nothing commonplace about that!

As the ultimate liturgy was performed by Jesus on the cross, the church’s supreme act of liturgy is the memorial of his sacrifice. In the Eucharistic Feast the church, empowered by baptism and the command “do this,” offers perfect liturgy to God. But what does she offer?

First she dispossess herself of her belongings, and offers them to God for holy usage. This is the significance of the liturgical element we call the Offertory. Early on when the baptized gathered they brought bread and wine to be used in the Sacrament; along with other gifts in kind to be distributed to the poor, and used for the support of the clergy and the church. Today, far removed from an agrarian economy, we bring our gifts in the form of currency which represents our labor, that can be transferred to others.

But the church offers more. She releases her innermost self to God, her prayers, and her praise. These, too, are gifts viewed by God as sweet smelling aromas. This is the rationale behind the use of incense; it is an olfactory image of the prayers and praises of God’s people. It's a discussion we need to have because our prayers and acclamations of God’s greatness are not just words; but a factual offering that rises like incense. (Revelation 5:8) A sacrifice better understood when done with the harmonious liturgical element of incense.

The church also gives herself over to God. Each member hands over his body as a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1-2) which is “holy, and acceptable to God,” and is per St. Paul our “spiritual worship.” This is what Jesus means when he says, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25)

But nor have we yet reached the end of the matter because the definitive oblation (sacrificial offering) the church makes in the Eucharistic celebration is to offer Christ to God! Not in the sense that he dies again, though that error was once forwarded by Rome. But in liturgy we offer Christ in the sense of “pleading Christ” before God. For what other salvation is there? By what other name can we approach God with confidence? And what other worthy gift do we have to give, other than the one God first gave to us. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas calls the Eucharist both a sacrament, and a sacrifice. A sacrament in that it is something God gives us. A sacrifice in that it is something we return to God.

This offering of Christ to God is also the rationale behind elevating the body and blood of our Lord following the words of institution. It’s the same pattern we learn from the Lord’s feeding miracles which are superlatively Eucharistic. As the people gave their gifts to Jesus, and he returned them thousands of times multiplied. Even so we give God bread and wine, and he gives us back the body and blood of Christ for life and salvation. What could be sweeter?

And so it is by all of these things that the church liturgizes her God. By divesting herself of her possessions, her prayers, her praises and by making her very life a living sacrifice, passing them over to God. All this by true faith, in conjunction with Christ, who is our authentic liturgist in the Holy Places, that is, in God.

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