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Liturgy:
The Church's 'Work' of Praising God

by Carol Luebering

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 and—maybe—liturgy.

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 worship—and the name has stuck. Liturgy—worship—is 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 are.

Liturgy is all those rites—words and actions—through 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 morning—even participating wholeheartedly—doesn't take the same kind of effort as cleaning out the garage or standing behind a sales counter. As for the result—well, 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 liturgy—the work of the Church—is 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 Jesus—his "work" in praise of God—liturgy draws us into the holiness that is God's. And, as St. lrenaeus put it centuries ago, the highest praise of God is a holy—fully alive—person.

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 planet—whenever, 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 Church—praising God—apart 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 citizenship—and 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 meal—these 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 readings.

Liturgy is public in still one more sense: It is open to view—as 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 underground—literally—into 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 to—just 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 play—a 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 time—time 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 end—the perfection—of time.

Living in the final age makes us a kind of time travelers. At Eucharist, the event we see as the peak of past history—the death and resurrection of Jesus—is 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" them—that is, proclaims and reveals to us the holiness of the time as we know it.

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 Eucharist—that moment of suspended time which they celebrated on Sundays—over the everyday turn of the clock. They marked the rising and setting of the sun—and all the hours between—by 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 caves.

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 moments—Morning Praise and Evensong—are 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.

Carol Luebering is a part-time book and homily services editor for St. Anthony Messenger Press and a former member of the Cincinnati Archdiocesan Commission on Worship. Her books include What Do You Ask for Your Child? Exploring the Reasons for Baptism; Your Child's First Communion: A Look at Your Dreams; Planning the Funeral Liturgy: A Guide for Families and Your Child's Confirmation: Reflections for Parents on the Sacrament of Christian Identity.

 
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