During the Mass, we say (or sing) together these words: “Who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven.” Those words are, of course, from the Nicene Creed—the statement that summarizes the basics of the Orthodox Faith.
For now, let’s focus on the word “for.” As in, “for us men” and “for our salvation.” In the context of the creed, that word “for” means “on behalf of” and “for the sake of.” It’s a way of saying that Our Lord Jesus accomplished our salvation because we could not; and that what He did He offered to His Father on our behalf.
We summarize that concept using the word “sacrifice.” A sacrifice is something we do for, or on behalf of, or for the sake of, others. We do the work; they get the benefit. In its purest form, this sacrifice “for” someone else is unselfish.
A synonym of the word “sacrifice” is the word “liturgy.” Liturgy is a work done for others. For their sake, on their behalf, and even in their place. That’s how the word was used in both politics. The ruler is a liturgist because makes decisions “for” the people. Ideally, he or she is acting on our behalf, for our good. At least, that is how St Paul sees it when he writes that the Emperor Nero is the liturgist of God for good. (Rom 13.4)
The use of the word “liturgy” in ancient worship came from its use in politics. In the Old Testament, the priest offers prayers and sacrifices to God for the people. In other words, he takes their offerings into the temple, and says the prescribed prayers. And the person who offers gets the benefit from the work the priest does. Hence, it’s a sacrifice—a selfless act on behalf of another person.
Because of His sacrifice, and because He does it “for us men and for our salvation,” Jesus is called a liturgist. His sacrifice is our liturgy. Only, the liturgy Christ offers far exceeds anything done by a politician. For the Lord’s liturgy, His work for us, is enacted and firmly rooted in better promises than any politician makes. And Our Lord’s goal is not merely to represent us, but to present us to the heavenly Father in His kingdom. And to present us, He must cleanse us, restore us, and renovate us. That is His work for us—His liturgy. And that work for the people—that liturgy—is what redeems and saves us.
Yet Our Lord’s work seems so distant—both in time and in our minds. And so we need to recall it, again and again. And recall, here, is not a memory thing but a re-enactment thing; in the sense that Christ Jesus enacts once again, before our hearts and minds, that exact same liturgy or work for us that brings us salvation. Not that He is repeating what He did; but that He is mystically transporting back to the original act, back to the sacrifice, back to His work for us.
Because we are weak, and because we are too earthly-bound, Our Lord uses ministers—liturgists—to do this re-enacting work for His people. As the priest offers the liturgy, He is presenting once again Christ’s sacrifice before our spirit’s eyes. The priest is working for us in order to help us see that we stand, both at the same time, at the foot of Calvary 2000 years ago and in the timeless Kingdom of Heaven.
Perhaps we could do this work ourselves. But if we did, then it would no longer be a selfless sacrifice; instead, it would be our work for our own sake. And then it would no longer be the work for the people, but the work of the people. And if it’s our work, it no longer needs Christ working “for us men and for our salvation.”
All of this is to say that, when we are in the Divine Liturgy, when we assist at the Mass, it is not our work, like paying our tax or obligation to God. Instead, it is us receiving what the Lord has already accomplished and done for us; receiving the work He has worked for our benefit. And our “work,” if we need to call it that, is simply to receive gratefully and in true faith all the benefits that our great liturgist presents and offers and gives to us.
This reflection is constructed from these thoughts