For those of you who may be interested in the core meaning of the word “liturgy,” I give you the following relevant quote from an article titled “Leitourgeia and related terms,” written by Naphtali Lewis and published in the Autumn 1960 issue of the journal Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies:
…it was the established view in antiquity that the words of the λειτουργεία group were compounded of the elements “public” + “work”, to signify “work for the people”, hence “service to the state”. (Lewis 1960, p.117 — this article will eventually be publicly accessible here; for the time being you need a research library that either has a physical copy or access to Periodicals Archive Online.)
Read the rest of the article if you’re able and draw your own conclusions, but do note that the preposition he uses to describe the relationship of “work” and “the people” in the definition of liturgy is for and not of. He goes through five basic senses of the word as found in antiquity in the order that they appear to develop — euergetism on the part of the wealthy as a political service owed to the state, some kind of service benefiting the greater community, any kind of function that benefits somebody else, religious ritual, and (evidently) the service of a military engineer. Nowhere does he encounter a sense of the word that amounts to “task being undertaken by a large group”. Quite the opposite — it’s a task being offered by an individual for the benefit of a large group. In that sense, the idea of a θεία λειτουργεία, a Divine Liturgy, seems to be that it is the service being offered by God for the benefit of his politeia, his commonwealth (πολιτεία or πολιτεύμα — in the Apolytikion of the Cross it’s πολιτεύμα, “…καί τό σόν φυλάττων διά τού Σταυρού σου πολίτευμα” “…and guarding your commonwealth/republic/state/etc. through your cross”).
In any case, even if it is from 1960, this appears to be the present state of the research, as Lewis is still being cited in current works.
I know I’m a nobody of a grad student with a blog nobody reads, but if you are one of the two people who reads this, can you please help me put this “work of the people” nonsense to rest?
Update, 31 May 2011: Just minutes after posting the above, I saw this post over on New Liturgical Movement, which quotes Pope Benedict XVI in a letter to the Chancellor of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music:
However, we always have to ask ourselves: Who is the true subject of the liturgy? The answer is simple: the Church. It is not the individual or the group that celebrates the liturgy, but it is primarily God’s action through the Church… (emphasis mine)
I think Benedict has slightly more influence than me, so this is good.