Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Church's 'Work' of Praising God
Ask half a dozen Catholics what the Church's work
is, and you'll get the same number of answers. One will tell you
the Church is supposed to be saving souls; another will speak
of upholding moral standards in an immoral world. A third will
speak of teaching, especially children. Someone else will mention
tending human needs, particularly the needs of the poor and suffering;
yet another of reshaping society, building the Lord's Kingdom
of justice and peace on earth. And one will mention praising God
For those keenly aware of the roots of the word liturgy,
that last answer comes closest to the truth: The "work" of the
Church is liturgy. The word liturgy has grown familiar
to Catholics since Vatican II and, in common parlance, usually
refers to the Mass.
But to the ancient Greeks who coined the term, liturgy
meant "public work," that is, any work undertaken in service of
the general populace. The word referred, for instance, to the
efforts of the shipbuilder who equipped a warship to defend their
shores, to the service given by civic leaders and to the work
of the folks who underwrote the Olympic games.
Centuries ago, when the Church was still in its infancy,
the same word was applied to Christian worshipand the name
has stuck. Liturgyworshipis the Church's "public work."
Liturgy isn't the only work the Church does, of course (those
other answers are also valid), but worship is the Church's central
activity, the work which serves the people by affirming who they
Liturgy is all those riteswords and actionsthrough
which the Church publicly praises God in Jesus' name. It includes
the Mass, of course, baptisms, weddings and all the other sacraments.
It also includes the Liturgy of the Hours and many other rites,
such as Christian burial, the consecration of churches, vow ceremonies
for religious, the blessing of water, palms, ashes and the like.
Its focus is the event which has changed human history: the Easter
event, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This Update will explore this "public work,"
focusing on the twin centers of liturgical activity: the Eucharist
and the Liturgy of the Hours. These two stand at the center of
Catholic worship and inspire our prayer and the good work we do.
How is liturgy 'work'?
Most people find it curious to speak
of worshiping God as work (except, perhaps, reluctant teenagers
who find Sunday Mass a chore). We Americans are accustomed to thinking
of work as "heavy labor"as an effort which yields some
tangible result. Liturgy doesn't seem to fit any part of
that definition. Getting to church on Sunday morningeven participating
wholeheartedlydoesn't take the same kind of effort as cleaning
out the garage or standing behind a sales counter. As for the resultwell,
we speak of grace, but that elusive quality is harder to measure
than the number of parts moving off an assembly line or the shine
on a kitchen floor. Sometimes we don't even seem to get results.
We pray for peace on earth and go home to read the morning headlines.
We raise our voices at Evensong (the Church's evening prayer) and
wonder if God is still listening when we cry out from pain or anxiety.
If liturgy is work, then obviously it
must be work of a different sort than what we face when the alarm
clock goes off. And indeed it is: The work of liturgythe work
of the Churchis giving praise to God through Jesus Christ.
Not because God needs our praise; God could manage very well without
us. We are the needy ones, incomplete creatures who look
for meaning in our lives. That's why we can apply that old Greek
word liturgy to our worship: It serves us by turning our
attention to God. By drawing us ever deeper into the death and resurrection
of Jesushis "work" in praise of Godliturgy draws us
into the holiness that is God's. And, as St. lrenaeus put it centuries
ago, the highest praise of God is a holyfully aliveperson.
We don't, of course, praise God only
at liturgy. We worship in the quiet prayer we whisper at dawn or
the agonized "Help!" uttered in the course of a hectic day, in the
awe we feel when the setting sun streaks the sky with color or changes
the face of red-rock canyon walls. We praise God alone and in small
groups, in the intimate circle of family or friends.
Our daily efforts are also fitting praise.
Whenever we build tiny communities of love within our homes, comfort
the sorrowing or visit the shut-in; when we work for understanding
between races, raise our voices as advocates of the poor or the
unborn, or speak out for justice in society and peace on our planetwhenever,
in other words, we help build God's Kingdom on earth, we are offering
worship to the King.
In these many ways we carry on the work
of the Churchpraising Godapart from the liturgy, so
to speak. But it is at liturgy that we do this work most publicly.
How is liturgy 'public'?
Liturgy is public in the same sense a beach or a restroom
or a golf course is public: open to all. Admission is free (more
accurately, prepaid, purchased for us on Calvary). The right to
participate is ours by citizenshipand citizenship is ours
by Baptism. We need no special knowledge, no devotion to a particular
saint or fondness for a particular form of prayer to participate
on the Church's liturgy, only membership in Jesus' living Body.
Liturgy is public in another sense, too: It is ritual,
a set of words and actions with universal meaning. Liturgy celebrates
God's presence in the most ordinary human things. The miracle
of birth, the bonds of love, a healing touch, a shared mealthese
human experiences are recognizable in the sacraments: Baptism,
Matrimony, Anointing of the Sick, Eucharist. A visitor from Germany
can recognize the breaking of bread in Jesus' name whether the
Mass is celebrated in English or Japanese. The music may be African
drums or Gregorian chant, songs accompanied by guitar or by organ;
the church may be an oriental shrine or a medieval French cathedral
or someone's living room. In richly diverse ways, Christians everywhere
do the same thing: They give thanks to God in Jesus' name.
Even Protestants can find some sense of home in Catholic
liturgy. One of the strongest testimonies to the unity which endures
among Christians in spite of centuries-old doctrinal quarrels
is the remarkable similarity in public worship. One would be hard-pressed
to distinguish between Roman Catholics and Anglicans celebrating
the Liturgy of the Hours. Even Churches whose "Communion Sunday"
is a monthly event use a eucharistic prayer that would startle
Catholic ears with its familiarity; Roman Catholics and many major
Protestant denominations follow the same sequence of Sunday Scripture
Liturgy is public in still one more sense: It is open
to viewas open as the church building itself. However strange
Sunday morning goings-on may be to nonbelievers, even casual observers
know that Christian worship is what Christians do.
In the Church's infancy, that public recognition was
dangerous. The Roman persecutions drove believers undergroundliterallyinto
the catacombs. Throughout the centuries, legal prohibition or
the neighbors' prejudices have made believers wary of attracting
too much attention. Even in these United States, where the freedom
of worship is written into the Constitution, old-timers in some
areas tell stories of buying land under false pretexts in order
to build their churches. And build them they did. They had tojust
as their ancestors had to file into the cemeteries under Rome's
streets, just as small groups in oppressed countries today must
find ways to come together for liturgy. Because it is at liturgy
that Christians both affirm and discover who they are.
Liturgy makes us who we are
Our American sense of work is not so out of tune with
the "work" of the liturgy after all; it brings us to the very
heart of why we do this "work."
We know full well that what we do is an essential
part of who we are. That's why it's part of getting acquainted.
"What do you do?" we ask the newly introduced stranger. Or the
question full-time homemakers hate slips through our lips: "Do
you work?" We exchange introductions in the same way: "What a
great workshop/kitchen/sewing room/computer system/garden! I've
got a project going myself..."
At liturgy, Christians define themselves by what they
do. Vatican II put it this way: "The liturgy is the means whereby
we express and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the
real nature of the true Church" (Constitution on the Liturgy,
#2). In other words, liturgy is our self-expression of who we
really are: a people who take time out from all the pressures
of earthly life to rejoice in God's nearness. The "work" of liturgy
is much more like playa celebration of who we are because
of all that God has done for us.
Celebrating a new view of history: Eucharist
"There's nothing new on the face of the earth," we
say. And the observation that "history repeats itself" is older
than written history. When a band of Hebrew ex-slaves made their
way into Canaan, they saw that a cyclic view of history ruled
the lives of their new neighbors. Those neighbors were farmers
locked in the cycle of nature. To them the turn of the seasons
and the earth's fertility were life-and-death matters reflected
in their religious practices. Canaanite worship was, by our standards,
obsessed with fertility. Their god was Baal; their rites reminded
this god to fertilize the earth each year by presenting human
sexual activity as a model.
When our Jewish ancestors settled in Canaan, they
brought with them not only a different God, but a different sense
of time. Their God was not a prisoner of nature but had interrupted
history and set it on a new course. Delivering a people from slavery,
leading them across the desert and giving the Law from the top
of a thundering mountain, the God of Israel gave time a new meaning.
Instead of being slaves to an endlessly recurring cycle of events,
this people was in the vanguard of ascending timetime
ruled by the Lord of history and destined to proceed toward full
intimacy with God.
Christian belief affirms an even more startling departure
from the cyclical turn of pagan time. Our God entered human history
in a new way as one of our own kind, the human Jesus. Broken in
death on Calvary, Jesus rose on Easter morning, and the world
has never been the same. Ever since his resurrection, his followers
have conceived history in terms never before heard on earth. We
live in the final age, we say; we strain forward to the Lord's
return in glory and the endthe perfectionof time.
Living in the final age makes us a kind of time travelers.
At Eucharist, the event we see as the peak of past historythe
death and resurrection of Jesusis a present moment.
At Eucharist we step back into an event which has rent the fabric
of time like a worn-out shirt. There we remember Jesus' dying
and rising not only as his story, but also as our own. With him,
we are propelled into a new age, a new creation. Eucharist is
our food for that journey into the future; the Liturgy of the
Hours is our ongoing response of praise to the God who daily leads
us into freedom.
A Resurrection-based calendar
The liturgy resounds with a sense that the time we
measure by clocks and calendars is moving us toward a glorious
future. Easter morning stands at its peak, shaping our weeks,
our years and our days.
The week: The first Christians gathered to
break bread in Jesus' name on Sunday, the "little Easter." (Daily
celebration of Eucharist is a centuries-later practice.) The day
the Lord rose gave a new shape to the week, to the endless turn
of everyday life. This day was different from any other day (even
though, in the first century, Sunday was just another working
day). The day of resurrection stood (and stands) at the center
of Christian belief that time is not circular after all, but ascending
moments leading believers face-to-face with God.
In the sense of time inspired by faith, the week and
the year are holy; our public prayer "hallows" themthat
is, proclaims and reveals to us the holiness of the time as we
The year: Easter, the day of the Lord's resurrection,
stands at the peak of time and at the peak of the Church's year.
From that peak, believers viewed the rest of the year and, over
the centuries, developed what we now know as the Church year.
The season we know as Lent was the first of the liturgical seasons
to take shape as a time of preparation for Baptism. Then (as now,
in the new Rite of Christian Initiation), catechumens moved deeper
into the life of the community, learning the Creed and the Lord's
Prayer in preparation for Baptism at the Easter Vigil.
The Church year we now know developed over many centuries.
Today we mark its beginning on the first Sunday of Advent with
a curious mix of anticipations: waiting for the long-ago birth
of the Messiah and for the Lord's future return in glory. The
Church year continues with the beginning of Jesus' ministry of
teaching and healing, slows in Lent to recall the meaning of discipleship,
follows him to death and risen glory at Easter, and picks up his
life in the season of "ordinary time" until we celebrate his Lordship
over heaven and earth on the last Sunday of the year, the feast
of Christ the King.
The day: If the week and the year are holy,
so too is each and every day. That conviction takes ritual form
in the other major element of the Church's liturgy: the Liturgy
of the Hours.
Celebrating the day: Hours
Hours is considerably less familiar to
laypeople than Eucharist. Apart from an occasional parish celebration
of Morning Prayer and Evensong, we know it better as the "Office"
priests and religious are supposed to recite each day. But it was
first the daily prayer of all Christians.
Borrowing from the habits of their Jewish
ancestors, the first Christians marked the hours of the day with
prayer. They came together to stretch their experience of the Eucharistthat
moment of suspended time which they celebrated on Sundaysover
the everyday turn of the clock. They marked the rising and setting
of the sunand all the hours betweenby praying the Psalms
and exploring Scripture.
When the persecutions of the early centuries
ended and it was no longer a crime against the state to believe
in Jesus, believers came out of the catacombs and thronged into
the newly-built basilicas to praise God throughout the day, especially
at dawn and at sunset. Meanwhile, others fled to the desert in search
of a more rigorous holiness. Although they lived as hermits, they
could not shake the urge to communal worship; they raised their
voices in praise at the same hours as the inhabitants of neighboring
Eventually, desert hermitages were replaced
by monastic communities whose primary purpose was to mark the hours
of the day with prayer. Over the centuries, the "office of readings"
became the daily prayer of all priests and religious. In time, Hours
was perceived as belonging to those who celebrated Eucharist frequently.
(This was an era when ordinary believers approached the Lord's table
so reluctantly that the Church had to legislate yearly Communion
as an "Easter duty.")
Since the Second Vatican Council taught
us to think of the Church as the whole "people of God," laypeople
have been rediscovering the beauty of the Liturgy of the Hours.
The abridged breviary with its cycle of psalms and readings has
replaced the old prayer books for many people. In the privacy of
their rooms or around the family table, countless believers join
their voices to the Church's daily prayer.
Morning Praise and Evensong (Vespers)
are also finding a place in parish life. Where the priest shortage
has made daily Mass an impossibility, weekday congregations are
filing into churches for Morning Praise and Communion. Instead of
yesterday's novena and Benediction, parishioners light the Easter
candle against night's approaching darkness and celebrate Evensong.
Those two momentsMorning Praise
and Evensongare the "hinges" of Hours, which also includes
prayer during the day and during the night. The ritual structure
is simple: hymns and psalms, Scripture and readings from religious
writers of every century, a canticle (Zechariah's, Luke 1:68-79;
Mary's, Luke 1:46-55; or Simeon's, Luke 2:29-32), prayers of petition,
the Lord's Prayer and, at Evensong, the sign of peace.
Whose work is liturgy?
In spite of its growing place in Catholic
worship, the Liturgy of the Hours remains unfamiliar to most laypeople.
As long as this kind of distance exists between the liturgy and
the laity, the question of whose work liturgy is remains
without a satisfactory answer.
That's not so surprising when you realize
that, not too many years ago, we thought of the Eucharist as the
priest's work which the rest of us watched. As the reforms mandated
by Vatican II took root, we began to think of Eucharist as something
all of us did. No longer do Catholics immerse themselves in private
prayer behind a priest's back and follow his prayer in a
Latin/English missal. Now we "participate": We sing, we respond,
we make the eucharistic prayer our own by our Amen.
The difference has even changed our vocabulary.
Once we spoke of the priest who "said" Mass. Then we began to call
him the "celebrant." Today we know that the entire body of worshipers
are "celebrants" and the priest is the "presider" or the leader
who conducts an orchestral hymn of praise. When the term presider
penetrates our understanding, we will truly understand why the Council
called the liturgy the summit of Christian worship. Praise
gladly given to God is our destiny, the "work" of heavenly rest.