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Celebrating Liturgica Music


History and Development

Liturgics refers to those things having to do with a liturgy, and the obvious point of departure in gaining an understanding of liturgics is to understand the word itself. This is particularly relevant in terms of liturgical music, because the terms religious music or sacred music, while describing the type of music, do not do much to explain the origins or practice.

The word liturgy is from the Greek word leitourgia, and the most common translation is "the work of the people." It is that common act of God's people together offering praise to Him in the manner which He revealed that they should. This is the type of worship which took place in the Jewish temple and synagogue, and which came into the early Christian Church.

Note that the emphasis is on "work," "praise" and "revealed." The original Greek term includes the term work, and conveys something much more vigorous than a congregation being entertained by a performer — rather, the people working together. Praise is that which is offered to God in thanksgiving for what He has done for us. Revealed makes clear that it is not a collection of actions of our own choice or convenience, but based on direction given to us by God. It is the collective work that assembled believers do together in offering praise and worship to God. Liturgical music is the music developed and either chanted, sung and/or played during this time, while liturgical ritual describes the action that takes place.

For most modern Christians, and, indeed for many contemporary Jews, liturgical worship may be a foreign concept. The question asked is often "why does liturgical worship follow such a set structure or order?" The question reflects an underlying assumption for many Christians that in the New Testament period worship was spontaneous, or reflects lack of knowledge about the origins of liturgical worship within the Judeo-Christian traditions. The fact is, this "order" has its very roots in the Bible, and much of Judaism and Christianity have been worshipping this way — more or less unchanged — for almost over 2000 years.

The core of liturgics is not just beautiful music or awe-inspiring ritual, rather it is a commitment to origins. Two concepts need to be kept in mind as one considers the "why" of liturgical worship and practice: origin and changelessness. Remember, first and foremost, that the Apostles and the first Christian disciples were Jews. That is, they were Jews who recognized and accepted Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. From their heritage with its history of liturgical interaction with God, came the Jewish form of biblical worship, the basic structure, the "origin" of Christian worship. For this reason, we see in Church history a highly developed Christian liturgical order in use even by the end of the first century — that is, within sixty years of Christs resurrection.

The second concept is "changelessness." Perhaps one of the most striking and unique things about much Christian liturgical worship, especially that of the Eastern Orthodox Church in this age of rapid change, and even change for its own sake, is its permanence and changelessness. For example, it has been said that one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Eastern Orthodox Church is "its determination to remain loyal to the past, its sense of living continuity with the church of ancient times." [1] This commitment to protecting the Gospel and keeping its message and praise to God the same stems from the conviction that the faith which we have is that which our Lord Jesus Christ delivered to us, and to which we will add nothing nor take anything away. This is a very similar commitment to that of Orthodox Judaism to hold fast to its liturgical traditions and rites. If Christians desire to be "apostolic," then they have to agree to belong to the same Church that Christ founded. That church began in the first century, and "there is a sense in which all Christians must become Christs contemporaries..." as a recent Orthodox Christian scholar points out. He goes on to remind us that "the twentieth century is not an absolute norm, the apostolic age is." [2]

C.S. Lewis, the British author, recognized the changelessness of the liturgy as an extremely important and very valuable characteristic for practical reasons. He went so far as to say it should be like an old shoe: something that fits, something that doesn't have to be broken in all the time, something you don't even notice is there. He concluded these observations by saying "The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God." [3]

Over the course of the last millennia there has been change in liturgical worship. However, it is change that has taken place carefully, within this context of "changelessness." Within the traditional liturgical churches, the change has not been a change in the real nature or substance of the faith and practice. Never change for change's sake, only change in order to remain the same. The underlying commitment has been the exhortation of St. Paul to Timothy to "guard the deposit of the faith" (I Timothy 6:20). But, at the same time, there has been a willingness to enhance the practice of worship in order to make it more heavenly, more spiritual, and more edifying.

[1] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, New York, Penguin Books, p. 203

[2] John Meyendorf, Women and the Priesthood, New York, St. Vladimirs Press, p. 14.

[3] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Glasgow, Collins & Sons, p. 6.

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