Liturgy in a Middle Eastern Environment

A Selection from a Work in Progress (WIP)
by Abu Daoud

Before one embarks on the difficult task of evaluating, critiquing, and revising liturgy, it is important to answer two questions (at least): what is the purpose of liturgy? And, how does one evaluate the success of a liturgy?

The word liturgy is derived from the Greek and means the work of the people. The Greek word does appear in the New Testament a number of times. In Luke 1:23 it is in reference to the cultic duties of the Levitical priesthood at the Temple, specifically in reference to Zechariah father of John. It is used in 2 Cor. 9 in reference to the giving of the Corinthian church for the saints in Jerusalem. In Phil 2 Paul speaks of the ministry of the Philippian church to him as a leitourgias. And Hebrews 8:6 and 9:21 refers to the ministry of Christ in the heavenly Temple, of which the earthly Temple was only a shadow, as a liturgy. Thus the usage of the actual word is very diverse in the NT.

It has at once specific cultic and priestly references, but is also used to refer to the collective ministry of communities in terms of charity for fellow saints and supporting the Apostolic mission of Paul.

The role and function of liturgy is dynamic and it is not possible to provide a permanent definition of the word. In general though, the NT supports an etymological generalization wherein a liturgical community is at once working, and a people. According to this observation, the work or mission of the people is informed and influenced by the liturgy, whether in a strictly cultic sense, or within the general sense of the wider ministry of the community. Also, the liturgy creates and sustains “a people.” That is, when successful, it provides, sustains, and passes on an identity. When a person asks the question, “who am I and what is my role within my wider community?” His answer should be informed by the liturgy of his church—if that liturgy is successful. Thus liturgies teach the difference between lay and clergy; Christian and non-Christian; married and single; child, adolescent, or adult; man and woman; and so on.

The idea of the liturgy sustaining a community implies a bifurcation in terms of purpose: at once the liturgy must be strict or delimited enough to forma real identity that is not merely lost among the other identities of the person as a member of an ethnic or national group. The liturgy of the community must sustain the sense of the otherness of this community and why it is special. On the other hand, a liturgy must establish a sense of identity that is willing and hopefully zealous to welcome in others, for the simple reason that most communities that do not welcome in others or have no desire to welcome in others are not giving. Such communities become introverted and their greatest goal simply becomes self-preservation.

A helpful image may be the human family. The identity of the family must be maintained through space and time by a sense of why the family is important, good, unique, and so on. Yet there must also be a willingness to grow, and biologically that means producing offspring with people from other families. Thus identity is paradoxically maintained only with the awareness of a dynamic and shifting construal of itself. Once identity becomes static and cannot develop and grow, it often becomes in itself an idol and people start worshipping Episcopalianism/Anglicanism or Eastern Orthodoxy or evangelicalism, or what have you.

The practical implications of such a theory of liturgy are multiple. Within the context of the Eastern Churches, specifically the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, the twin scourges of Islam and Communism have been absolutely devastating—far more traumatic than anything that the Western Churches, whether Latin or Protestant, have suffered. Communism made certain promises regarding economic equality that it ultimately and dramatically failed to fulfill, thus leading to its general collapse. During its reign it certainly persecuted Christians zealously and effectively. This can be seen from the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church had more martyrs than any other church in any century during the 20th Century. Or consider the fact that communist Albania is the only country in this history of the world to even have been officially declared an atheistic state. But its reign was not sustainable because it failed to tie in the most profound needs of the human being, which are spiritual and transcendent.

Islam has been much more effective in the long term of nullifying the life of the Christian community by striking at the heart of the liturgy: the ability, much less the desire, to welcome in new members. The liturgies of the Eastern Churches certainly became central to maintaining the identity of the Christian dhimmis, this is true whether we are speaking of the earliest dhimmi contract or the elaborate millet system of the Ottoman Empire. If this theory of the liturgy is valid, then baptism actually becomes anti-liturgical once it is accepted that certain people within a community cannot receive it. It is anti-liturgical because it announces the emptiness of the work of the church, and denigrates the people who are working it. The foundation of the Church is openness to others, indeed working towards creating openness to others (what we have traditionally called mission and evangelism). And once a church has closed itself to the other, it has made a decision against the work of the people. For this reason martyrdom is the most profound of liturgical acts within the Church: it is the Eucharist written on the body.

The criterion of success for liturgy does not need to be viewed through a Western lens of church growth and popularity. Continuity of a community is certainly important, and many of the churches in MENA are declining, and some are on the verge of total extinction. Additionally, the commission of Jesus to make disciples of all ethnic groups and nations, as well as the archetypal example of the early church in Jerusalem, certainly implies that over the long term growth and welcoming in people who formerly had not entered into the Kingdom of God was to be normative and mandatory.


E. Twist said…

Wonderful post. Very well thought through. I, of course, loved this bit;

"The liturgy of the community must sustain the sense of the otherness of this community and why it is special. On the other hand, a liturgy must establish a sense of identity that is willing and hopefully zealous to welcome in others, for the simple reason that most communities that do not welcome in others or have no desire to welcome in others are not giving."

It is so essential to build communities that do more than simply reflect their surrounding culture. Pop-communities lack integrity. The Church is to proclaim the "otherness" of God's Kingdom. It is tough to do that when one's practices are indistinguishable from one's secular milieu.


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