What is Liturgy?


Like many other ‘churchy’ words that we use, ‘liturgy’ comes from Greek, the language used by the early church in its worship and writings. It derives from the word leitourgia which referred to any public service or function exercised by the people as a whole. The people who do the work of liturgy are the people of God, all the baptised - the Church.

Liturgy is worship, but not all worship is liturgy. While worship can be a private act, liturgy is always a communal activity. A working definition of liturgy that I find helpful is ‘the official, public worship of the Church’.

In the Catholic Church, we have inherited forms and patterns of worship that have developed during the Church’s 2000-year history. Those who prepare liturgical celebrations do not begin with a blank sheet. Each day of the year falls into a particular place into the church’s liturgical calendar. There are certain scripture reading and prayers that are assigned for use at Mass on particular days. The celebrations of the rites of baptism, marriage, funerals, and so on are set out in the Church’s ritual books.

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).

Liturgy is always an action, something we do; it is not simply a text in a book. Liturgy is a public action, a ritual action, and a symbolic action. We participate in the action of the liturgy by responding, singing, listening and joining in the gestures.

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. 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.

The liturgy is 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.

Not everyone can express the depth of this reality in words, 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.


Elizabeth Harrington