What is Liturgy?

Where does the word ’liturgy’ come from and what does it refer to?
Like many other ‘churchy’ words that we use, ‘liturgy’ comes from the language used by the early church in its worship and writings – Greek. It derives from the Greek word leitourgia which was used to refer to any public service or function exercised by the people as a whole.
A more common word that is close in meaning to ‘liturgy’ is ‘worship’. But there are a number of descriptors that need to be added to make it equivalent to what we understand liturgy to be.
Worship is prayer, praise and worship directed towards God. The prime reason for our praise and thanksgiving is for the gift of our salvation in and through Christ.
But while worship can be a private act, liturgy is always a communal activity. Individual worship is best referred to as private prayer or devotion. It is not liturgy.
The people who do the work of liturgy, are the people of God, all the baptised - 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 celebration of the rites of baptism, marriage, funerals, and so on are set out in the Church’s ritual books.
So a working definition of ‘liturgy’ that I find helpful is ‘The official, public worship of the Church’.
Celebrations that fall under this definition are: all the sacraments, funerals, Liturgy of the Word (with or without communion), Liturgy of the Hours (usually celebrated as morning or evening prayer), and benediction. By the way, there is no such thing as a ‘paralitugy’, as far as I know, anyway. Something is either liturgy or it is not. I think the term paraliturgy was used in the past to refer to the liturgy you were having when you weren’t having Mass. But as the list above indicates, liturgy encompasses far more than only the eucharist.
Prayer is not liturgy if it is spontaneous, unstructured, informal, private, or not addressed to God. In fact, in the latter case, it is not even prayer! All prayer is addressed to a deity.
Liturgy is always an action, something we do. It is a public action, a ritual action, and a symbolic action. 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. We participate in the action of the liturgy by responding, singing, listening and joining in the gestures.
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.


Elizabeth Harrington