Fifth Day of Christmas and Commemoration of the Holy Innocents, the 14,000 Infants Slain by Herod in Bethlehem
AS THE NEW year approaches and we begin once again to think about our annual report to Caesar in the guise of the IRS, my mind always turns to one of the more curious words that the early Church stole from the Greeks: liturgy. While it is easy today to understand how the Fathers could support its use on etymological lines––for liturgy, literally, means "the work of the people"––it is harder to understand how the word for taxes on the rich in democratic Athens came to be applied to Christian worship.
Then again, taxes for the Athenians were much different than taxes today. While some resented the imposition of the liturgical taxes, many 5th century Athenians and resident aliens willingly paid over liturgies to the city, probably since, unlike today, the taxpayer was directly responsible for overseeing the use of his funds for the public good. Liturgy was gift.
And this perhaps makes sense of the Church's use of liturgy to describe its worship. It is an exchange of gifts. Who can list all the gifts that God gives to those who worship him? But we at least can measure our gifts of time, goods, and our very selves. But that is looking at things from a very human perspective. God gives all. Whatever gifts we offer are what Tolkien might call subcreations. The father provides his child with paper and crayons, glue and scissors; and more than this, the father gave him the food, shelter, and very seed of life that made it possible for this child to be sitting at the table with these toys. But this does not diminish the father's delight when his child decides that this particular piece of art should be set aside for his father to bring to work.
The strange economy of liturgy, where the recipient's cultivation of the gift leads to the ability to give, and this giving, in turn, increases the initial gift, has its analogue in soil. Soil, properly cultivated, grows deeper and richer with each harvest.
The Roman poet Vergil knew this well. The first of the four books in his Georgics, his great didactic work on farming, is devoted to building soil. If you overwork the field or refuse to take a season to fix nitrogen with those low-profit legumes, you will find your topsoil stripped and useless; if you neglect the duties of plowing properly, you choke your soil from the air that breathes life into its mixture of mineral and organic debris. Sins of commission, sins of omission. Virtue, as Aristotle says, is a mean between two vices.
To build soil in our soul, we must cultivate liturgy. Like a field that never lies fallow, we quickly deplete the graces given to us if we do not set aside time for Sabbath. Conversely, mere rest is not the leisure of the Sabbath, and we are like the servant who buried his talent, if we approach liturgy passively. And as Robert Frost said, "[W]hat is more accursed / Than an impoverished soil pale and metallic?"
Patrick Callahan is the Dean of Humanitas, a two-year great books program sponsored by the St Lawrence Institute for Faith and Culture for students at the University of Kansas.