The priest turns to the congregation and hearing the words, Depart in peace, the people are released into the world after the service of another Liturgy. But was that the Liturgy, and had it ended as the agape meal began?
The word liturgy comes from the Greek leitourgia, which had the sense of a public service. Liturgists in the Greek world were those, usually wealthy, individuals who took on the responsibility, as a service to the wider society, of organising one of the community religious events. But we find it used in the New Testament as well, where it takes on a richer meaning.
In the Gospel of St Luke we find the account of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and we learn that after he had spoken with the angel in the Temple, and had been struck dumb, he returned to his home, when the days of his leitourgia, or public service, were complete. We find here that sense of leitourgia as being more than just a particular religious service, but as a service to others on behalf of the community.
St Paul also uses this word in several places in his letters. In 2 Corinthians he speaks about the leitourgia, but not in the context of any service of worship. When he is encouraging the Corinthians to make sure that they fulfill their promise to give generously to the suffering people of Judea, he says…
“For this leitourgia you perform not only meets the needs of God’s people, but also produces an outpouring of gratitude to God”.
The liturgy being spoken of here is not one of prayer, or praise, but of practical service which meets the needs of the community of faith. Elsewhere, in the letter to the Philippians, he speaks of the sacrifice and leitourgia of their faith, expressing the idea that their faith had been worked out as practical service, and he talks of St Timothy, his colleague, who had supplied at great cost, and through his leitourgia, for the needs of St Paul. And then finally in the letter to the Hebrews, St Paul speaks of Christ as having received a greater leitourgia than that of Moses.
Of course our services in Church are an aspect of this leitourgia, but they do not exhaust what is meant, indeed the early Fathers of the Church speak of the gathering of the Church as the Eucharist or Thanksgiving rather than Liturgy.
Among the great Fathers, St John Chrysostom speaks of a duality of service, or liturgy. There is, he says, the altar of stone at which the priest stands, and where the Body of Christ is manifested. But there is also that holy and fleshly altar, made up of the hearts and lives of those who belong to Christ, who are already the Body of Christ, offering by the service of their lives, and especially to those in need, the same sacrifice. The Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the Liturgy of the Life of Service are the same, he says.
This seems to me to represent that earliest understanding of the meaning of liturgy, of leitourgia. It is not one service among many, the Eucharist itself. Nor even does it essentially consist of all of the services of prayer and praise in the life of the Church. It is the service we offer to God in both the prayers of the Church and in living the life of the Church. In receiving Christ in the Eucharist we are not completing our own liturgy, rather we are being nourished and prepared to continue this same liturgy, this same service, in the world, and especially among those who are in even greater and more desperate need of the presence of Christ.
Our whole life is, and must become, liturgy, the freely given service of our hearts and lives to God and to the world. What meaning do our prayers in the Church on Sunday have, if they do not transform our lives on every other day, so that we are manifesting the life of Christ which we receive in the Eucharist? The prayers of our daily spirituality, must also express this same continuity of liturgical life. They are an expression of the same liturgy, the same offering of service, which transforms and transfigures. We cannot say that the liturgy begins here and ends here. Our whole life is liturgical. Everything is Liturgy.
This is why it is not appropriate to sing the songs of non-Orthodox communities, or read their teachings, or watch their videos. It is not from some sense that we are better people than others. We know that this is not the case. But we are those who are participating in the liturgy of Christ, who is the minister of this new leitourgia in the Holy Spirit. We have no authority to introduce into the liturgy any strange and alien elements. There can be no sense in which we say that this spirituality is liturgical and this is non-liturgical, just as we cannot say that this service is liturgical and this is non-liturgical.
Everything is Liturgy. Everything, on the one hand, is the gift and grace of Christ in the communion of the Church, the Body of Christ. Everything, on the other hand, is our service to God, in the Church and the world, by the power of that grace. The spirituality of the Church, in the services and in our private devotions in the cell of our heart, are one liturgy. The service of the Church, in the altar, in the various ministries, and in the giving of ourselves to those in the world, is one liturgy.
We can never isolate or separate ourselves, or any of our activities, from this one liturgy of the Church in Christ. This is why, even when we gather together as two or three, we use the prayers of the Church to form and sustain our own devotions. We are always the Church, the Body of Christ, offering the liturgy, the leitourgia, of the Church. When we are sharing the love and life of Christ with those in need we remain the Church, the Body of Christ, offering the same liturgy of the Church. This moulds and gives structure and order to how we live, and pray and serve. All that we are and all that we do is an expression of our participation in the Church, the Body of Christ. It is one Liturgy because everything we are and everything we do, every prayer, every song, every act of kindness and service, springs from the same source, and serves Christ, the minister of the new leitourgia in which we share.