What’s in the word liturgy?

The Rev. Jim Richardson, Priest-in-Charge

We sometimes refer to our Sunday worship as “The Liturgy.” The word liturgy has ancient and surprising origins. In its original context, liturgy came from a compound word in Greek for people (laos) and work (ergon), according to scholars Louis Weil and Charles Price in their landmark book, Liturgy for Living.

The term was not at first religious, but was connected to public works done at private expense in ancient Greece. Building a road or bridge for public use on private land was considered “liturgy.” Those who translated the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) into Greek in about 250 B.C. expanded the meaning of liturgy in references to public worship. In effect, worship became “the work of the people.”

By the time of the New Testament, liturgy was fully connected to the new Christian understanding of Christ’s sacrifice celebrated through sacraments. The new use of the word is explored in the Letter to the Hebrews. Saint Paul used the word in Romans 15:16 when he described himself as a “minister of Christ,” or in the Greek, liturgon Christo.

“Liturgy” is often misused when describing only those churches that follow a prayer book or a script in worship such as ours. In fact, any church that conducts worship in a structured way is “liturgical” even if the words are not written on a script.

And what of the word worship? It is an English contraction of worthy and -ship, and means assigning value to something, usually a person. In medieval England, aristocrats were addressed as “Your Worship.” Only later did worship become connected to a human response to the “worthy” initiatives of the divine.