I do not usually admit this right off the bat – it is definitely a conversation stopper – but here it is: I am a liturgist. “Liturgy” is a common enough word among Christians, but it does not flow trippingly off Jewish tongues, and I am not only Jewish but a rabbi to boot. The word comes from the Greek, leitourgia, “public service,” which is how Greek civilization thought of service to the gods. The Jewish equivalent is the Temple cult of antiquity – in Hebrew, avodah, which meant the same thing, the work of serving God. That eventually morphed into what people do in church and synagogue. Christians call it liturgy; Jews call it “services.”
Narrowly defined, liturgy is the history and meaning of the prayers that go into services. But that constrained understanding misses the most important point, namely, that liturgy is a kind of performance. No one buys a prayer book for personal reading purposes. If the thing doesn’t get prayed from, it doesn’t count as liturgy any more. So liturgy is the way a community defines its public identity; it is the ritualized ways we go about announcing who we are to other people (who, we hope, will say the same sort of thing back to us, and thereby let us know we are not alone). That’s where “life” comes in. Liturgy is the place where text meets life. Everyone has a liturgy, usually more than one, in fact.
Birthday parties are liturgies; so too are presidential debates, Super Bowl parties, Oscar night, half-time shows, and a whole lot of business meetings. Sometimes these accomplish other things, but they are liturgical in form: people dress a certain way, sit in certain seats, eat certain foods, and say predictable things. Liturgies define calendars: the way we mark time, what we consider holidays, and why those holidays matter. They require certain spaces: board rooms for executive meetings, dining rooms for formal parties, the Oval Office for presidential announcements. They establish community (who gets invited) and pecking orders within them (who hosts, acts as chair, gets honored, and sets the agenda). They both build on and establish tradition. The liturgies people attend and the energy they put into them are pretty good indications of who and what those people value most.
So what’s this blog all about? It’s “a little bit of liturgy” but because liturgy is the way we ritualize life, it is a whole lot more about life. It’s my unabashed take on a lot of life: our communities, our values, our identity, and our stories in the making – but with a twist, a liturgical twist, the insight that comes from knowing that human beings are ritualizing animals, and that how and what we ritualize says a lot about who and what we want to be.