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The difference between “of” and “for” in the definition of a word

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.

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18 Responses to “The difference between “of” and “for” in the definition of a word”


  1. 1 melxiopp 31 May 2011 at 11:41 am

    The conservative Lutheran church I grew up in preferred the term “Divine Liturgy” as they understood it to be the service of God (Divine), as you find here.

  2. 2 rjhargrav 31 May 2011 at 11:47 am

    This is something new that I hadn’t known before. Thanks.

    In Greek, would both the English ‘of’ and ‘for’ be genitive? How would the meanings be distinguished?

    I can do what I can to put nonsense to rest, though here that means using Kiswahili, and mine isn’t quite up to par. I can think of some cumbersome paraphrases to clarify the distinction, but don’t know my verbal extensions well enough to say it succinctly or elegantly.

    • 3 Richard Barrett 31 May 2011 at 11:56 am

      Good question. Broadly, the English “of” expresses a Greek genitive, and the English “for” expresses a Greek dative. “Work of the people” == “the people’s work” or “the work that the people are doing”. “Work for the people” == “the work done by somebody else on behalf of or for purposes of benefit for the people”.

      That said, it can get a little confusing sometimes because there is such a thing as a dative of the possessor, where somebody literally says “There is for the man a book”. The deacon’s opening line of the Divine Liturgy, Καιρός τοῦ ποιῆσαι τῷ Κυρίῳ, sort of works that way — we usually say in English, “It is time for the Lord to act,” but the literal rendering would be something like “It is moment of acting for the Lord.” Leitourgeia, as it’s a single abstract noun, doesn’t really function that way (as I think Lewis makes clear enough).

  3. 6 Lucas 31 May 2011 at 11:53 am

    Well, between your lightly-read blog and my own not-at-all-read blog, maybe we’ll finally correct this.

    If only we could have tapped into those pre-rapture advertisement funds and convinced them to put up ‘Leitourgeia DID NOT mean “work of the people’ billboards instead.

  4. 7 melxiopp 31 May 2011 at 11:55 am

    I wonder what is meant by “antiquity”, and whether this means primarily ancient and pagan Greek culture and language. Western classicists tend to ignore Christian Greek culture and language, so λειτουργεία could have taken on more an “of” connotation in the Church and Byzantium. It could be that a non-Greek Christian understanding was also brought into the Greek tradition affecting the definition of the Greek term used to ‘translate’ the concept. This would also explain why Erasmian-influenced Lutherans (at least re their understanding and pronunciation of Greek) would understand the Greek term in the ancient rather than than millenium-long Christian sense. Context may also be provided by the way in which the term was translated and understood in Old Bulgarian and Church Slavonic as this would highlight the way Greek prelates then understood the term λειτουργεία.

    • 8 Richard Barrett 31 May 2011 at 12:47 pm

      I just happen to have a set of early Christian examples that are applicable.

      1 Clement 40.5: For to the high priest the proper services (leitourgeiai) have been given, and the priests the right position has been appointed and to the Levites the proper ministries are imposed. The layman has been bound by the layman’s orders.

      Origen, Contra Celsum VII.75: And it is not for the purpose of escaping the more common services (leitourgeias, and in context it’s clear that he’s talking about political obligations) of life that Christians decline [secular public services], but that they may reserve themselves for a more divine and more necessary service (leitourgeia) in the Church of God for the salvation of men.

      Origen, Commentary on John II.25: As we are now engaged with what is said of John, and are asking about his mission, I may take the opportunity to state the view which I entertain about him. We have read this prophecy about him, “Behold, I send My messenger (angel) before Thy face, who shall prepare Thy way before Thee;” and at this we ask if it can be one of the holy angels who is sent down on this service (leitourgeia) as forerunner of our Saviour.

      In the Apostolic Constitutions (late 4th century), the word is generally used to refer specifically to the ministry of the bishop — e.g., 8.4, 8.46, 8.47.29 & 37.

      Then there’s this fascinating example from Eusebius. He mostly uses it to refer to the episcopal office as well (II.24, III.13, III.34, IV.1.1, etc.), but he does use it occasionally to refer to religious ritual (such as II.17.23, where he talks about Philo of Alexandria’s writings on the so-called Therapeutai and their proto-monastic daily rhythm of common prayer, although Eusebius didn’t seem to know that Philo was actually Jewish). But in X.7, he quotes a letter “in which the emperor commands that the rulers of the churches be exempted from all political duties (leitourgeias)”:

      Greeting to you, our most esteemed Anulinus. Since it appears from many circumstances that when that religion (threskeia, piety or ritual) is despised, in which is preserved the chief reverence for the most holy celestial Power, great dangers are brought upon public affairs; but that when legally adopted and observed it affords the most signal prosperity to the Roman name and remarkable felicity (eudaimonia) to all the affairs of men, through the divine beneficence (ton theion euergesion)—it has seemed good to me, most esteemed Anulinus, that those men who give their services (tas hyperesias) with due sanctity and with constant observance of this law, to the worship of the divine religion (tes theias threskeias), should receive recompense for their labors.
      Wherefore it is my will that those within the province entrusted to you, in the catholic Church, over which Cæcilianus presides, who give their services (hypersian) to this holy religion (te hagia taute threskeia), and who are commonly called clergymen, be entirely exempted from all public duties (ton leitourgeion), that they may not by any error or sacrilegious negligence be drawn away from the service (therapeias) due to the Deity, but may devote themselves without any hindrance to their own law. For it seems that when they show greatest reverence to the Deity, the greatest benefits accrue to the state. Farewell, our most esteemed and beloved Anulinus.

      Here’s a clear indicator that in the early fourth century, leitourgeia was principally understood as service on behalf of the public, or political responsibilities, and that the worship of the Church was generally referred to as something else, at least by the majority of the Roman world. If anything, there seems to be a reluctance for Christians to call their services “liturgies” because of the connotations of public service in a Greco-Roman sense. St. Clement goes there, but he’s quite clear about using the term to delineate the difference in function between clergy and laity, not using it as a way to refer to “everybody’s shared task”. Eventually these understandings mingle, and by the eighth century St. Germanus is calling the Eucharistic service “the liturgy” (Ch. 23), but he only uses the term once in his commentary.

      Even as late as Cabasilas in the 14th century, leitourgeia still seems to have the clear sense of “work ON BEHALF of the people”, as the first sense of his commentary on the Divine Liturgy says: “The transformation of the gifts into the holy body and blood is the task of the holy rite of the sacred mysteries; the objective (telos) is the sanctification, through forgiveness of their sins and inheritance of the kingdom of heaven, of the faithful receiving such things [the body and blood].” So the telos of the liturgy is still something God does and the people receive, not something the people do. It’s still “work for the people,” not “work of the people”, in other words.

  5. 9 melxiopp 31 May 2011 at 12:52 pm

    A nuance, ““The transformation of the gifts into the holy body and blood is the task of the holy rite of the sacred mysteries” says the Divine Liturgy is something “the holy rite of the sacred mysteries” accomplishes, not God alone. That is, it is the leitourgeia of the Church or the clergy or all those involved in the sacred mysteries. This last point is important because the involvement of the laity is a canonical requirement of the Divine Liturgy, i.e., a priest/bishop cannot serve without someone there to say ‘Amen’. There might be a certain analogy of language here whereby the literal meaning of the terms was understood in a far broader sense.

    • 10 Richard Barrett 31 May 2011 at 1:10 pm

      That may be, but I don’t think you find that in Cabasilas, and that doesn’t necessitate a shift in meaning of “work for” to “work of”. Cabasilas I.2: “Truly God freely gives us all holy things, and we offer him nothing” (Εἰ γὰρ καὶ προῖκα δίδωσιν ἡμῖν ὁ Θεὸς πάντα τὰ ἅγια, καὶ οὐδὲν αὐτῶν προεισφέρομεν). Also, XXX.9: “Since [Christ] alone is the one sanctifying, he alone is the one who is priest, sacrificial victim, and altar” Οὐκοῦν ἐπεὶ μόνος αὐτός ἐστιν ὁ ἁγιάζων, μόνος ἂν εἴη ἱερεύς, καὶ ἱερεῖον, καὶ θυσιαστήριον).

      “Work of the people” seems, if anything, to be a populist invention of the 20th century.

  6. 11 Chris Trembanis 31 May 2011 at 1:16 pm

    Being an Antitheist….the above is useless and energy
    best spent trying to find a medical cure…
    “My mind is my Church”..T. Payne

    Careful you don’t preserve the “Thea Mithologhia”

    • 12 Richard Barrett 31 May 2011 at 1:25 pm

      I’m quite certain you’re not the only one who finds it useless! Even factoring out confessional points of view, it’s a matter of historical interest at least, and religion is of value on sociological terms as well. Nonetheless, I won’t bother trying to convince you (a former opera singer) of the value of the humanities on utilitarian terms!

  7. 13 Chris Trembanis 31 May 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Dear friend…having been were your’re at now..I can tell you from a man who has lived to a ripe 71. That one exsperiences an evolution. More utilitarian and
    humanistic as you stated. Former “opera” singer..You must be kidding singing better than ever…….
    I won’t bother trying to convince you about the “to” or “for” sociological value of any religion. Study history with a “katharo” intellect…..

    • 14 Richard Barrett 31 May 2011 at 3:21 pm

      I have no doubt that you’re singing better than ever — good singing cultivates good singing! As far as a pure intellect goes, I don’t think anybody has that, and we all have to work with what we have.

  8. 15 Chris Trembanis 1 June 2011 at 8:08 am

    Katharo can mean “clean” unbiased…….

    Can anyone find any intellect if they live in a
    bubble??????

    A question the Helenes pondered centuries ago….


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  2. 2 “The hidden hand behind bad music” – could it happen here?: American Catholic worship and Orthodoxy in America « Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy Trackback on 29 January 2013 at 8:30 am

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