Liturgy: Some Key Ideas

March 07, 2007

For contemporary Catholics, the word "liturgy" is finally finding its way into our common vocabulary.  Although the word was used by the Early Church, it fell into disuse for a number of centuries.  It was reclaimed in the 18th century to refer to the Church's worship and later used frequently by the Second Vatican Council.  (In fact, the council's first major document was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.)

The word "liturgy" comes from the Greek word leitourgia (from the words laos [people] and ergon [work]).  With these roots in mind, today we speak about "liturgy" as God working through the work of God's people.  Liturgy is the prayer and work of the Church (that is, the assembly of people whom God has called to gather).

What, then, are some key understandings about the Church's liturgy?

»  Liturgy is the way in which Christians mark sacred time.  We mark the hours of the day through prayer (i.e., Liturgy of the Hours).  We mark the weeks of the year by gathering on Sundays.  We also mark the cycles of seasons of the liturgical year.  The liturgical year puts us in touch with the rhythm of life -- be it times of celebration or times of lament, moments of rejoicing or moments of weeping, days of surprises or days of expectations fulfilled.

»  Liturgy is the public work and public prayer of the whole community.  Liturgy is not private prayer of isolated individuals.  Every liturgical rite (that is, ceremony or celebration) is by its very nature communal -- it involves the entire Church.

»  For Christians, then, liturgy is about relationships.  It is where our relationships with the Triune God, one another, and all of creation are made visible.  We invoke the Trinity to remember (to make present here and now) that we are called to live in relationship with God.  We also experience in the liturgy that God is both transcedent (beyond our full understanding) and immanent (in personal relationship with us).  In addition, the liturgy makes visible the community -- the Body of Christ, the Church -- that we are and helps to sustain us as a community.  Finally, the liturgy reminds us of our relationship with the entire human community and with all of creation.

» Liturgy is rehearsal for the Kingdom to come and rehearsal for daily living.  In our liturgical celebrations, we proclaim and celebrate what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, but we also anticiapte the Kingdom that has not been fully realized on earth.  Further, liturgy rehearses us for our participation in the Kingdom here and now, that is, for living what we believe as Christians.  We are rehearsed in what it means to live the Christian life.  We are tutored in seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary.  The liturgy mediates God's presence, which stretches us, remakes and renews us, and sends us into the world so that the world too might be remade, renewed and transformed.

» Liturgy is action; it requires our participation.  In our liturgical celebrations, we are invited to gather, welcome, remember, pray, contemplate, attend, sing, offer ourselves, share, partake, listen, imagine, love and serve.  Our participation, however, does not end when the ritual ends.  Our participation in the liturgy continues as we live our lives, as we "go to love and serve," as we go to be the Body of the Christ in the world.

» Liturgy is the Church's spirituality.  The liturgy is a primary source of spiritual nourishment, a time and a space for contemplation.  We are invited to reflect upon what God had done and is doing in this world, and what this means for how we live.  We are invited to reflect on God's daily call to us to live more deeply a life of holiness.  We are asked to become more aware of others, attentive to the needs of others, and respond to those needs with compassion and courage.  The liturgy helps to give meaning to the mission of the Church and to the faith journeys of the baptized.  Because liturgy is a communal event, it also reminds us that Christian spirituality is community-oriented and not self-focused.

(Parishes may reprint “Liturgy: Some Key Ideas” in the parish bulletin or catechetical materials.  Please include the author’s name and the following:  “Reprinted with permission of, a resource web site sponsored by The Georgetown Center for Liturgy, Washington, D.C.”)

Anne Koester works and teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.  She has edited or co-edited three books:  Liturgy and Justice: To Worship God in Spirit and Truth (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002); Vision: The Scholarly Contributions of Mark Searle to Liturgical Renewal (co-edited with Barbara Searle; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2004); and Called To Participate: Theological, Ritual, And Social Perspectives (co-edited with Barbara Searle; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2006.); Anne is also the author of Sunday Mass: Our Role and Why It Matters (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007.)


A Particiatipation that is Demanded by the Very Nature of Liturgy
Jesus as Model Relationship Builder
Justice: What Are We Talking About? (Part I, Part II, Part III)
Putting on Our Sunday Best!
The 20th Century Social and Liturgical Movements in the U.S.: Working out of a Common Vision
To Live and Learn: What Does Liturgy Teach?