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What is the liturgy?

The “Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church” says: “The liturgy is the celebration of the mystery of Christ and in particular his paschal mystery. Through the exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ the liturgy manifests in signs and brings about the sanctification of humankind. The public worship which is due to God is offered by the Mystical Body of Christ, that is, by its head and by its members” (Q. 218).


When we speak of the liturgy, we mean not only the Eucharistic sacrifice (the Mass), but also the Liturgy of the Hours (the official public praying of the psalms, other biblical texts and readings from the church fathers) as well as the celebration of the seven sacraments. The chief “doer” of the liturgy is Christ, and we, as baptized members of his body the church, are joined to him in his eternal self-offering. Just as we are “buried therefore with him by baptism into death” (Rom 6:4), so too, when we participate in the sacred liturgy, we offer ourselves “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is (our) spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), so that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).


The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek “leitourgia” meaning “a work on behalf of the people.” It is Christ, therefore, who, on our behalf, is the primary priest of the Mass; he is the one who baptizes, who confirms, who ordains, who anoints, and who continues to pray the psalms as he did on earth. Our public worship is through Christ, with Christ and in Christ. He is the “minister (leitourgos) in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord” (Heb 8:2). According to St. Thomas Aquinas, “The whole rite of the Christian religion is derived from Christ’s priesthood,” for in virtue of the indelible marks, or characters, we receive in baptism and confirmation, “the faithful are likened” to Christ; these characters “are nothing else than certain participations of Christ’s priesthood, flowing from Christ himself” (“Summa Theologiae,” part 3, q. 63, art. 3).


In the sacred liturgy, especially the Eucharist, we enter into the kingdom made present now, into the heavenly liturgy where Christ is the “Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Rev 5:6). We are drawn into eternity and participate in the eternal self-offering of Christ who offered himself upon the cross. The liturgy is the victory celebration of Christ’s trampling death by death, when he bestows life to those in the tombs. The liturgy is the proclamation to all mankind of the Gospel (the good news) of his triumphal death and glorious resurrection: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32). Our participation in Christian worship is not merely the recollection of a past event 2,000 years ago, but the life and power and glory of God bursting into our space and time, into our very lives, to transform us into himself through the Holy Spirit. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, “The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed … it is the font from which all her power flows” (“Sacrosanctum Concilium” 10).


At every Mass, when we hear the words of Jesus, “Do this is memory of me,” we are not merely remembering; rather, as Eucharistic Prayer I, the Roman Canon, prays, “We celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension into heaven of Christ,” and as the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in the Byzantine tradition adds, “the second and glorious coming”— a future event present in God’s eternal now. When through sacramental signs and liturgical rites the church memorializes what Christ has done, God remembers his covenant made in the broken body and spilled blood of Christ, and the effects of Christ’s work of redemption is made present in us and for us. Our response, like that of the good thief crucified next to Jesus — “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42) — should be one of gratitude, for that is the meaning of Eucharist: “to give thanks.” As the psalmist prays: “What shall I render to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps 116:13-14).


Wallace is an adjunct professor at Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019