Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

04 September 2003

The meaning of "liturgy"

Over the years I've discovered that different Christians mean different things by the word liturgy. Some use it to describe words printed on a page to be recited in the course of worship -- either by the clergy or by the congregation or by both. Others use it as synonymous with worship in general. But the Orthodox have a quite specific meaning for it. Liturgy for them is virtually synonymous with the Divine Liturgy as a whole.

While in Toronto I once walked into a Ukrainian bookstore on Queen Street and asked whether they had any recordings of "liturgical music." I had a vinyl record of Slavonic chant at home, and I assumed I might be presented with something similar. Sort of a "best of" album. But no. The woman behind the counter brought out two cassettes (this was in the days before the wide availability of CDs) each of which contained a choral rendition of the entire Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, sung, I would assume, in Church Slavonic. That, for her, was liturgical music.

For the Orthodox, it seems, liturgy is not snippets of chant lifted from their context to provide background music for the cosmopolitan westerner. It is the complete drama of redemption celebrated every week in word and sacrament. Anything less than this is something other than liturgy.

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