09 July 2017

The Greeks have a word
for it: (12) Liturgy

The Divine Liturgy … an icon by Mikhail Damaskinos in the Museum of Christian Art in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I enjoy spending Sunday morning’s in Greece at the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in a local church. There is only one priest in Platanes and Tsemes, but there are two churches. And so, on Sunday mornings here the Divine Liturgy alternates between each church, Sunday-by-Sunday.

The main Sunday service is always a celebration of the Eucharist in Greece, and is known as the Divine Liturgy, which can be a little confusing for some first-time western visitors.

The word λειτουργία (leitourgía, liturgy) is Greek and means ‘the work of the people.’ The Greek word λαός (laós) means the people, and the laós might even mean the rowdy, the masses, the populace.

‘Ores leitourgías’ … opening hours or the time for serving the public in a shop next door to me in Platanes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Liturgy is not necessarily a sacred word. This word liturgy is well-understood by everyone in Greece. The term is neither technical nor purely theological. I am not good at supermarket shopping, but local shops in Crete have signs that regularly announce ‘Opening Hours’ as ώρες λειτουργίας (ores leitourgías) – the hours of service, or the hours for serving the public.

The word λαός (laós) can also be found in a word such as βασιλεύς (basileós, modern βασιλιάς) for a king, which literally means the one who goes before or leads the people.

The word λαουτζίκος (laoutzíkos) meaning the populace, the rabble, or even the vulgar horde has been used recently during the strikes and protests in Greece about public spending cuts.

A poster in Rethymnon a few years ago reminded me that The Beggars’ Opera translates into Greek as Η λαϊκή όπερα.

The Greek word λειτουργία (leitourgía) means public duty. We now restrict this to the worship of the church, and even more specifically and restrictively to the ritual worship of the Church. In Greece, essentially, it is the Eucharist.

The word liturgy (λειτουργία, leitourgía) is a Greek composite word meaning originally a public duty, a service to the state undertaken by a citizen. Its elements are λειτος (leitos, from laos) meaning public, and ergo (obsolete in the present stem, used in future erxo, etc.), to do.

So basically liturgy means the ‘public work of the people’, the masses, all of us, for we are all members of the λαός (laós), the people.

From this we have leitourgós (λειτουργός), ‘a person who performs a public duty,’ ‘a public servant,’ often used as an equivalent to the Roman lictor; then leitourgeo, ‘to do such a duty,’ leitourgema, its performance, and leitourgía, the public duty itself.

In the Greek city-states, the λειτουργία was some public good that a wealthy citizen arranged at his own expense, either voluntarily or by law. In Athens, the λειτουργία (leitourgía) was the public service performed by the wealthier citizens at their own expense.

The γυμνασίαρχος (gymnasíarchos) superintended the gymnasium, which looked after the health, spiritual and physical, of the people. The χορηγός choregós paid the members of the chorus in the theatre. The εστιάτορας hestiátoras gave a banquet to his tribe – the word survives in the modern Greek, meaning a restaurateur (the modern Greek word for a restaurant is εστιατόριο (estiatório), a place of public service where the public is served food. The τριήραρχος triérarchos provided public service to the state in Athens by outfitting and paying for a warship for the state.

The meaning of the word liturgy is then extended to cover any general service of a public kind. In other words, the liturgist looked after the health, including the spiritual health of the people, saw to ensuring the important stories of the people were told and shared publicly, provided the shared, sacred meals, and perpetuated the concept that we are on a shared journey – precisely what priests is responsible for at the Liturgy everywhere this Sunday morning.

In the Septuagint, the word liturgy and the verb λειτουργέω (leitourgéo) is used for the public service of the Temple (see Exodus 38: 27; 39: 12, etc). It then came to have a religious sense: the function of the priests, the ritual service of the Temple (e.g., Joel, 1: 9; 2: 17, etc.).

In the New Testament, this religious meaning has become definitely established. In Luke 1: 23, Zechariah goes home when ‘the days of his liturgy’ (αἱ ἡμέραι τῆς λειτουργίας αὐτοῦ, ai hemérai tes leitourgías autou) are over. In Hebrews 8: 6 (διαφορωτέρας τέτυχεν λειτουργίας, diaphorotéras tétuchen leitourgías), the high priest of the New Law ‘has obtained a better liturgy,’ that is, a better kind of public religious service than that of the Temple.

A reminder in Crete recently that ‘The Beggars’ Opera’ translates into Greek as Η λαϊκή όπερα (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Visiting the Museum of Christian Art in the Church of Saint Catherine of Sinai in Iraklion last week, I spent time appreciating the icon of the Divine Liturgy by Mikhail Damaskenos.

In this icon, dating from 1579-1584, Damaskinos presents his theme in a traditional iconographic interpretation. The Father and the Son are surrounded by seraphim; between them, the altar is draped with a gilded cloth; above them, the Holy Spirit appears as a dove. Encircling angels are present for the Divine Liturgy.

This is one of the most important icons produced by the Cretan School in the 16th century. Mikhail Damaskenos (Μιχαήλ Δαμασκηνός), 1530/35-1592/93, was one of the leading post-Byzantine Cretan painters while Crete was under Venetian rule. He was a near-contemporary of the most famous Cretan painter of any period, El Greco. But while Damaskinos also went to Italy, he remained much closer to his Greek roots stylistically.

Damaskinos lived in Venice for several years, where he learnt miniature painting and travelled extensively throughout Italy. He was a member of the ‘Greek Brotherhood of Venice’ and along with Emmanuel Tzanes he painted the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice.

By 1584 he was back in Greece and worked mainly in Crete and the Ionian islands. His works are in traditional Byzantine style but with many influences from Venetian painting, mainly Renaissance artists such as Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese. He used a particular rose colour that characterised his paintings; the dimensions of his figures are defined by only a few brush strokes, while he was accustomed to drawing wooden and never marble thrones as was typical in the Cretan School.

In this icon of the Divine Liturgy, the only two humans present at the Liturgy are Adam and Eve at the bottom of the composition. But here they represent the whole of humanity being invited into the Divine Liturgy, which is a Trinitarian celebration.

In other words, in the Divine Liturgy we join in the celebration of the Holy Trinity, and find that only are we serving Christ and humanity in the Liturgy, but that the whole of humanity is being served by God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the celebration of the Liturgy.

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