Why Is Christian Liturgy So Repetitive? An Insight from Derrida
Christian liturgy involves cycles of repetition. We have recurring liturgical calendars, weekly gatherings of worship, the Eucharist, and the recitation of important prayers. The repetitive nature of Christian worship is, in my experience, one of its greatest strengths. It is through such liturgical repetition that we engage in disciplined spiritual formation, remind ourselves of the gospel, and actively engage in historic practices of the Church.
But what is happening when we engage in these repetitive liturgical practices? While that question admits of more than one answer, I’ve found that the philosophy of Jacques Derrida offers some compelling insight into the transformative power of Christian liturgy.
Repetition and Change
Repetition plays an important role in Derrida’s philosophy, especially with regard to one of his most important themes: iterability. In order to get a grasp on iterability, it’s helpful to explore Derrida’s commentary on language. According to Derrida, a word can only properly function if it can be repeated: “Love” is a legitimate word precisely because it can be used in countless instances and in different contexts. To use another example, if I could not place my name on different documents at different times, then it would cease to be my name, since part of the function of a name is that I can use it to refer to myself, or others can use it to refer to me, in a theoretically infinite number of scenarios.
Derrida highlights one of the more paradoxical implications of repetition: it requires change. While many assume that repetition involves different instantiations of an identical, stable sign, it actually denotes multiple instantiations of a dynamic sign that is constantly in flux. After all, if you’re able to use the same word in multiple contexts, then that word must be able to adapt to each new context in which it is used. To build on our earlier example, imagine a couple who is celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. Throughout their relationship, they have told each other “I love you” countless times. With each iteration of that phrase, it takes on a new meaning, as the “I” and “you” have changed, and the nature of their love has altered. Saying “I love you” to someone who just agreed to marry you is different from saying “I love you” to your spouse of 40 years whom you have just nursed back to health. Yet, at the same time, there is a continuity of meaning that persists through each utterance.
Now, once you consider how many people have uttered “I love you” in different relationships, for different reasons, and to different ends, etc., you can start to picture the dynamic nature of repetition.
So repetition involves a paradox: a sign can only remain the same in different iterations so long as it is able to change with each iteration. Repeating the same word is, at the same time, uttering something new. And it is precisely this paradox that Derrida references with the term “iterability.”
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that Derrida does not insist that each repetition of a word brings about an entirely different word. Rather, he’s pointing out that, while a word may never mean the exact same thing twice, it also doesn’t mean an entirely different thing altogether. Language is elastic and dynamic. It can adapt and bend to each new situation, all the while neither becoming entirely new nor remaining absolutely identical. So repetition, for Derrida, operates between the poles of identical recurrence and absolute novelty.
So what does all of this have to do with liturgy? Derrida’s philosophy highlights the dynamic and transformative power of liturgical repetition. When we recite ancient prayers, follow liturgical calendars, and celebrate the Eucharist, we join the saints in praising God and conforming ourselves to Christ’s image. At the same time, we are participating in fresh expressions of these ancient traditions, exploring their surplus of meaning. For millennia, across countless contexts, people of different nations, tribes, and tongues have proclaimed the love of Christ. And with each proclamation, the mosaic of Christ’s body grows in its beautiful complexity and boundless diversity.
Christian liturgy is not about repeating abstract propositions, but affirming the truth of the gospel with our whole being. As a result, Christian liturgy requires a sacred repetition which calls us to embody Christ anew in each moment, all the while participating in the same tradition of our forebears. Such is the compelling paradox of Christian liturgy.