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The Meaning of the Word 'Liturgy'
Feb 13, 2000
People often ask about the correct meaning and usage of the word “liturgy”.
Curiously, use of the word “liturgy” is quite modern: it was only popularised in the nineteenth century. At first referring just to the Mass, it came to designate the entire worship activity of the Church. In the early Church, the word (of Greek derivation) meant any public service or function exercised in the interests of the people as a whole.
To give a definition of liturgy is surprisingly difficult. Liturgy is a living thing, an action understood only through participation in it. Writing in his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei, Pius XII rejected two inadequate definitions: firstly that liturgy is merely outward, visible ceremonial and secondly that it is a list of laws or rubrics according to which the rites are to be performed. Nor, fundamentally, is liturgy the scientific study of worship forms, whether from an historical, theological or anthropological point of view. Liturgical science provides us with a more profound understanding of the liturgy, but is not liturgy itself.
The reality of the liturgy is both physical and spiritual, visible and invisible. The liturgy functions as a sacred sign. The tangible words and actions made by the Church in liturgy signify the mysterious Word of God who acts in our midst; in fact, the liturgy actually makes present God’s action in the world since it is Christ who acts in the worship of the Church, Christ’s body. The liturgy is indeed, therefore, the twofold work of God’s Spirit and the Church assembled. Not only does the Church’s prayer of praise and petition rise to God in the liturgy but the rich blessing of the Spirit also descends upon the Church and its assembled members. In its sacramental signs, the Church takes part in the passage of Christ from suffering and death to life and glory.
This description emphasises that the liturgy is not only communal and public but is the official worship of the Church made present in the gathered assembly. In this act of the Church, Christ acts to save us. Other group prayer and devotions may also be of great spiritual value but are not on the same level as the liturgy.
Popular devotions of the Christian people…should be so drawn up that they harmonise with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it, and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them. (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 13).
This description also emphasises that the liturgy is an action, an event; it is not simply a text in a book. It is in the proclamation of the word that God speaks to us; it is in the breaking of the bread that we recognise Christ.
Not everyone can express the depth of this reality in words. It is difficult. But everyone can take part in the singing, the prayers, the scriptures and the sacramental gestures and know that by their participation they touch the mysterious presence and grace of God.