What is Liturgy

Since the promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy at the Second Vatican Council, parishes and worshipping communities have begun to engage the faithful in many aspects of the liturgical life of the community. Preparing the liturgy is an important ministry within each worshipping community entrusted to those who have been trained in liturgical principles and the rites. As we reflect on this important work, it would be well to look more closely at what we mean by "liturgy" and what is involved in "preparing".

Liturgy is a verb--an action of Christ and his Body, the Church. It is prayer--ritual prayer in community. Liturgy is the work of the people--literally the work done on behalf of the people--the saving work of Christ made present in the power of the Spirit through which our salvation is both signified and realized. In liturgy we remember and make present the Paschal Mystery of Christ.

Liturgy is an act of communication: God with us and we with God and with one another. It communicates the truth of God's living Word and God's saving deed through symbolic language--signs perceptible to the senses through which we experience the imminent and transcendent God. Through the power of word and ritual action the liturgy expresses and communicates the faith of the Church; lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of prayer is the law of belief.

The purpose of the liturgy is to make people holy, to build up the Body of Christ, and to give worship to God; liturgy is primarily for us, the Church, not for God. It is in fact God's initiative which draws us to worship and God who has placed the very desire to give praise within our hearts; as the preface for weekdays IV (P40) says so beautifully: "You have no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift. Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness, but makes us grow in your grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord."

What makes the liturgy "the perfect offering" is not our exquisite music or the architectural appointments or environment of our worship spaces, not even the renewal of the rites; the liturgy is the perfect offering because it is the offering of Christ to the Father. We who are Christ's Body are joined with him in offering Christ and ourselves again and again in an ongoing sacrifice of praise just as he commanded. 

As ministers, we would like the liturgy in our parish or our diocese to be "perfect" and we certainly put considerable effort into making it the best that our community can provide. Perhaps the best thing we can do to provide quality celebrations in our communities is to trust the liturgy and prepare it well for celebration. The liturgy belongs to the whole church--not to any particular individual or local community. It has been handed down to us, in some instances relatively unchanged, for centuries. The liturgy is not only a celebration in this particular time and place, but it links us with the countless faithful who have gathered at the Lord's command around the table of word and sacrament through the ages; and it propels us into a future time when we will celebrate in the fullness of God's reign at the eschatological feast of heaven. Therefore, we do not need to "plan" something new, different, or more exciting than what we did "last time." We have simply to do it again--faithfully, to the best of our ability, using the richness of the signs and symbols, drawing on the deep faith of those who follow Christ--confident that this living sacrifice of praise which we offer with Christ will form us and transform us more perfectly into his image. Thomas Tally said it like this:

"Those of us who were deeply involved in historical, theological and pastoral consideration of the liturgy are, by this very fact, virtually incapable of leaving it alone. Loving it, we fondle it until it is misshapen. Certain that with a bit more planning it can be somehow "better" next Sunday than last, we deny the assembly one thing that it desperately needs: immersion in a ritual pattern whose authority, dimly understood but powerfully experienced, transcends our own ingenuity, erudition, and energy. At the risk of being hoist on my own petard, I must confess that we need the insight and the faith to obey the rubrics."

Worship: Reforming Tradition, The Pastoral Press, Washington, D.C., 1990.