What Is Liturgy, and Why Do We Need It?

Russian Orthodox Church

A recent post by Peter Leithart questioning the role of high liturgy in sacramental theology has already sparked two responses on this site, and I wish to add to this collective response, though perhaps taking a different angle, specifically one that is surprisingly non-theological.

Liturgy is as old as religion itself.  Sacrifices, altars, incense, priestly vestments, and so on, have all been found in ancient literary descriptions of human religion and in the earliest archaeological records. The following example of a ritual is from a text found at Ras Shamra, Syria (modern day Latakia), the ruins of the ancient city-state of Ugarit destroyed around 1200 BCE, which describes a sacrificial liturgy and has been called by some as an “atonement liturgy”:

Section V
(26) wa šaqrib ˤēra mēšari
mēšari bini ˀugārit
wa [nōpayu gēri ḥāmiyāti] ˀugāri<t>

Section VI
(40) [lē dabaḥīma] wa lē ṯaˁī
dabḥun (41) nidbaḥu
huwa ṯaˁū ni[ṯˁayu
huwa nakatu na]kkatu
yitta[ši]ˀ lē ˀabī banī ˀili
(42) yittašiˀ lē dā[ri banī ˀili
lē] mapḫarti banī ili
(43) lē ṯakamuna [wa šunama] hanna ˁēru

Bring near the donkey of “re[cti]due”:
rectitude of the son of Ugarit
And [well-being of the foreigner within the walls] of Ugari<t>

[As concerns sacrifices] and the ṯaˁū-sacrifice
The sacrifice, it is sacrificed,
the ṯaˁū-sacrifice, it is [offered,
The slaughtering is done.
May it be borne to the father-of-the-sons-of-ˀIlu,
may it be bor[n]e to the C[ircle-of-the-Sons-of-ˀIlu
to] the Assembly-of-the-Sons-of-ˀIlu,
to Ṯakamuna-[wa-Šunama:]†

Performative Language

This text describes the offering of a donkey as a sacrifice to the Ugaritic high god ˀIlu (equivalent of the Biblical “El”), but what is significant here is what we would call performative language. “The sacrifice, it is offered,” “The slaughtering is done,” “May it be borne to the father-of-the-sons-of-ˀIlu” –  all of these phrases describe an action that is performed simultaneously as the words are spoken, similar to how we say “Here you go,” when we hand something to someone.

Performative language is the hallmark of liturgy. We need only think of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, wherein we find this exchange at the epiklesis:

Priest: Again we offer to Thee this spiritual and bloodless worship;
and we beg Thee, we ask Thee, we pray Thee:
Send down Thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these Gifts set forth.
(Deacon [pointing with his orarion to the diskos]: Bless, Master, the Holy Bread.)
Priest: Make this bread the Precious Body of Thy Christ,
(Deacon [pointing to the chalice]: Amen. Bless, Master, the Holy Cup.)
Priest: And that which is in this Cup, the Precious Blood of Thy Christ,
(Deacon [pointing to both]: Amen. Bless them both, Master.)
Priest: Changing by Thy Holy Spirit.(Deacon: Amen, Amen, Amen.)

As the deacon points to the various objects and the priest speaks the words, it is believed by all present that the actions which are described are actually happening, that is to say, as the priest speaks the words, the Holy Spirit is indeed descending upon the gifts and changing them into the body and blood of Christ. Each of these statements is a performative utterance, e.g., “We offer to Thee” is an actual offering. Even the response of the people is performative, “We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we give thanks unto Thee, O Lord…” When we sing “we praise Thee,” we are actually praising, when we sing, “We bless Thee,” we are actually blessing. These performative utterances form the real nuts-and-bolts of liturgy, whether it be a pagan sacrifice or a Christian Eucharist.

At the core of this is the basic idea of significationwhich forms a subset of linguistics known as semiotics (and furthermore pragmatics). The father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, described a sign as a combination of a signifier and the thing signified. In language, a word is a sign that contains the signifier, which is the particular combination of sounds that make up the word, and the signifier, which is the actual, real-world object that the word means. For example, the word “dog” contains a signifier, “d-o-g,” and it signifies a particular domestic animal with floppy ears and a waggly tail. We could use the signifier “perro” or “kalb” or “hund” – it doesn’t matter. The signifier is arbitrary, even though it is connected to the thing signified. In performative language such as liturgy, a signifier such as the epiklesis above is a sign. It contains a signifier, which can be variable (the epiklesis of the Liturgy of St. Basil is different), consisting of the text read by the deacon and priest, and the signified, which is the very act that it describes, i.e. the descent of the Holy Spirit and the change of the gifts.

Gestures can be signs as well. For example, when a priest or bishop makes the sign of the cross with his right hand, it is a sign containing the signifier of the cross-ways motion of the hand and the thing signified, which is a blessing. It is usually accompanied by performative language as well, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you.” As the sign-gesture and the sign-utterance are performed, the thing signified is believed to actually happen.


A second factor present in all liturgical acts is something we may call markedness (pronounced “mark-ed-ness”), which is the quality of something being marked out as being distinct form something else. In all religions, including Christianity, deities and things associated with deities are marked out as being special and distinct. This marking out is the root idea of what we call holiness or being sacred. In Christianity, something is said to be “holy” if it is specifically marked out as belonging to God or for exclusive use by or for God.

In order for something to be perceived as holy, it must, therefore, be marked out as being uncommon in some way. We do this in a multitude of forms: The priest is marked out by wearing holy clothing, i.e., vestments of brocade and beautifully embroidered designs; the book of the Gospels is marked out by being bound in gold and carried in procession; the chalice is marked out by its beautiful appearance and position on the altar; even beards are a form of markedness for priests, bishops, and monastics.

All of these things are holy, because they are marked out as being different from normal, common clothing, books, and cups. Even language is marked as being sacred, which is why most people prefer liturgy to be chanted, not said, and done so in an ancient language such as Koine Greek, Church Slavonic, Latin, etc., and why English speakers often prefer Elizabethan English forms with Thee/Thou pronouns and other archaisms. If God is referred to as “You,” it messes with our sense of sacredness, because “you” is a pronoun in common language, and it feels to some people too colloquial. We use archaic language forms in order to specifically mark out liturgical language as being distinct and holy in its unique service to God.

Signifying Faith

The signification of performative language and markedness enables people to offer worship to God as conduits of faith. When we mark something out as being holy, (i.e., by saying a prayer of consecration and sprinkling holy water on it), we actually believe that it becomes holy. When a priest clothes himself in sacred vestments, he actually believes that he is stepping into the sacred role of offering the Eucharistic sacrifice. When we liturgize by offering the Eucharist with prayers and ritual actions, it is precisely because we believe it to be real and true, contrary to Leithart’s accusation that it betrays distrust in God. Leithart does not seem to understand the role of performative language (semiotics) or markedness in human religion, nor especially in Christianity, for his statements are the exact opposite of what all liturgy is designed to express: faith in God.

Performative language and ritual is vital to the preservation of dogma by enabling dogmatic belief to be actualized. We believe by speaking and doing rather than merely having an idea in the back of our mind. The fact that nearly all religions in the world, even the people of Ugarit 3500 years ago, used ritual action and performative language testifies to the fact that it is a part of our nature as human persons. To ritualize—to liturgize—is to be truly human.

Similarly, markedness is extremely important for creating and sustaining a sense of holiness—for marking out sacred space and sacred time, and for designating certain people, objects, and language as being devoted to God. Without markedness, we lose the sense of the divine presence (which is utter and complete holiness) and hinder our ability to devote ourselves as being holy to God.

We believe as we pray and as we act in liturgy. Our prayers and liturgical actions are vehicles and instruments of faith, by which we are both transformed by the grace of God and transform the world by consecrating it to God in a cosmic liturgy of redemption.

†RS 1.002, text, vocalization, and translation by Dennis Pardee, from: Bourdreuil, Pierre and Dennis Pardee. A Manual of Ugaritic. Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic, Vol 3. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009, pgs 204-205.

Also: Pardee, Dennis. Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. Writings from the Ancient World, Vol. 10. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Eric Jobe

About Eric Jobe

Eric Jobe earned his Ph.D. in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He specializes in Hebrew poetry, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Second Temple Judaism. He is also an instructor of Bible and biblical languages for the St. Macrina Orthodox Institute.



  1. It should be noted that Leithart and his fellow ministers (in the CREC/FV movement of Reformed Christianity) are largely unique in their usage of both clerical collars and vestments as ministers. Many Presbyterians and Reformed criticize them on this very point (despite the fact it’s far more ubiquitous overseas and in classical Reformed history).

    Leithart would also seemingly agree with your points on language (Thee/Thou vs. You).

    So there is a recognition by Leithart that a minister is not a “common” worker, and that the things they do are not mere, “common” work.

    Strange they would recognize as much for simple human beings and the office they occupy, but not the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

  2. Thank you Eric for this uplifting post, which I find inspiring as to my own hobby of studying the liturgies of Christianity and other religions, which I might wish to take up professionally. I love liturgiology, and I believe that the possibility even exists that in some of the ancient liturgies such as the Ugaritic liturgy we are seeing genuine worship of the God we know of as the Holy Trinity.

    1. Well, that may be a bit of a stretch. The Ugariticians were Baal worshippers. The point, of course, is that liturgy is very human, that to liturgize is to tap into our deepest humanity, and this is how we relate to God, as human persons liturgizing as is a part of our nature.

  3. I’ve read through this entire series, “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy”, et al. Very interesting indeed. Doesn’t it always come down to an understanding of the human person? One cannot suppress the liturgical understanding of man any more than to contest his rationality and composite being. It is a matter of God’s love bleeding out of His Church (this article speaks directly to that). It is God evidently manifesting Himself liturgically in all of creation as a relation between Himself and His work. It’s interesting to note that Cain and Abel sacrificed without any positive prescription. This is providential for me, as I am nearing a defense of my thesis on this topic from a philosophical point of view. Thank you so much for the continued insight! God bless!

  4. Hi Eric,

    I attend a small group bible study with Protestant couples; what binds us is that we are all empty-nesters and belong to a non-Denominational church, (which is a code word for Baptist). Even though my wife and I attend this particular church we are still members of the (Roman) Catholic Church. We just couldn’t walk away from the Bread of Life (John 6:66).

    Several times in the past 2 years we have encountered opposition to what our separated Brethren call “Ritualism” in the Catholic Church. They are also referring to other Churches with a Liturgy as well. This “Ritualism” is believed by these very devout Christians to be “legalism” and vain repetition and has no basis in scripture. I’ve found myself trying to explain that this is how the Apostles and the early church worshipped. Recently I found a talk on Ancient Faith Radio (http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/ourlife/liturgical_worship_in_the_new_testament) on the Liturgy which explained this very well.

    The next time the topic comes up I am going to ask this: “It’s not a question of Liturgical worship in the Early Church, but when did it stop? The answer to this question is that it stopped during the early Reformation. I was told my a very Catholic friend that the Liturgy and Eucharist stopped because the Protestants didn’t have Apostalic Bishops and Priests who could administer the Sacrament of the Eucharist. My personal opinion is that only a Priest with Apostalic authority can administer the Lords Supper, (I’m not sure what the Eucharist is referred to in Orthodoxy, outside of that it is leavened bread).

    I fully agree with your post. Question: Does the Dead Sea Scrolls prove that the Jews didn’t practice legalism? I’ve read that Circumcision on the 8th day brought you into the Jewish faith as a member of the choosen people. But it was Liturgical Worship in the Temple and the keeping of the Torah, that set you apart from the pagans and allowed you to remain in the covenant. It’s makes sense to me.

    In Christ,

    Ron Iacone

  5. Hi Eric,

    This is a bit off topic, but related to liturgy. Can you explain the word “Epiousios” to me. We see this word used only once in the New Testament. I’m in a blog debate about the Holy Eucharist and have come across several scholars who have said that when Jesus Christ shows us how to pray, as in the Our Father, or Lords Prayer, he used this Greek word. Does it mean “supersubstantial bread” and that the Holy Eucharistic bread offered in the Mass is thus “supernatural bread” as well?

    Do you see a relationship between the Lords Prayer and the Holy Eucharist?

    In Christ,

    Ron Sr.

    1. Unfortunately, that is not something I know much about, other than that it is a hapax legomena (occurs only once) in the NT. “Supersubstantial” would be an overly literal translation. “Daily” is probably sufficient, nothing too deep there. I would chase it down for you more, but I am very pressed for time.

      1. Thanks for getting back to me so quickly……

        I’ll keep “Epiousios” out of this debate. It was translated by Jerome as “supersubstandial” from what I’ve read in some scholorly websites. But, yeah, it would be reaching a bit too far.

        Thanks very much,

        In Christ,


  6. I would like to ask: What kind of liturgy is actually celebrated in the picture above this post? I mean, one sees women standing in the Sanctuary, which is inappropriate. And they wear short skirts, above the knee, which is still more inappropriate. Whatever this is, it cannot be a traditional Christian liturgy. This must be something very modern.

    1. First of all, it is a Byzantine Rite wedding. Secondly, the women are not standing in the sanctuary, but on the solea. Thirdly, the content of the post has nothing to do with the photo, which was added by an editor after it was written. Finally, who appointed you the arbiter of what is “traditional?” (Normally, I would not approve such a comment, but I did in order to make an example of the sort of pathological traditionalism that defies logic and good reason, not to mention its inappropriate authoritarianism over and above the peaceful life of a parish community.)

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