Like many other ‘churchy’ words, ‘liturgy’ comes from the language used by the early church in its worship and writings – Greek. The word liturgy is derived from leitourgia which was used to refer to any public work or function exercised by the people as a whole. The people who do the work of liturgy are the people of God, all baptised.
A well-known word that is close in meaning to ‘liturgy’ is the word ‘worship’. But while worship can be done privately, ‘liturgy’ is always a public, group activity.
A working definition of ‘liturgy’ that is helpful is ‘The official, public worship of the Church’.
Some of the best-known forms of liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church are:
In the Catholic Church, we worship using forms and patterns of worship that have developed during the Church’s 2000-year history. Every day of the year falls into a particular place into the church’s liturgical calendar, and certain scripture readings and prayers are assigned for use at Mass each day. The celebration of the rites of Baptism, Marriage, Funerals and so on are set out in the Church’s ritual of books.
Liturgy is always an action, something we do. It is a public action, a ritual action, and a symbolic action. It is the proclamation of the word that God speaks to us; it is in the breaking of the bread that we recognise Christ. We participate in the action of the liturgy by responding, singing, listening and joining the gestures.
The worship of the Catholic Church follows a calendar that is based on a cycle of liturgical seasons plus saints’ days celebrated throughout the year.
Just as we mark our lives by anniversaries, the Church celebrates the mysteries of Christ’s life in a recurrent pattern. Within the cycle of a year the Church remembers and celebrates Christ’s conception, birth, death, resurrection and sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
During the course of the year we bring to mind past events and people to keep the mystery of faith alive today and we look forward to Christ’s return in glory at the end of time. As pilgrim people, we are constantly nourished by the story of Jesus and guided by the saints, our ancestors in the faith, living witness of God’s unchanging love.
In some respects the church’s way of keeping time conflicts with the secular calendar. The new liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent at the end of November, just as many other things like the academic year are coming to an end.
The seasons of the liturgical year are:
- Advent – a period covering the 4 Sundays before Christmas during which we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth and anticipate his coming again at the end of time. The liturgical colour for Advent is violet.
- Christmas – the season of Christmas celebrates Christ’s birth and early manifestations. It runs from 25th December to until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord on the Sunday after 6th January. The liturgical colour for the Christmas season is white.
- Lent – the 6-week time of preparation for the celebration of Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday and finishes on the evening of Holy Thursday. The liturgical colour for Lent is violet.
- Easter – the heart of the liturgical year is the Easter Triduum (three days) celebrated from the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday evening. The Easter Vigil is the high-point of the celebration. The joyful celebration of Christ’s resurrection continues for the 50-day Easter season from Easter Sunday to Pentecost. The liturgical colour for Easter is white.
- Apart from these seasons, there are 33 or 34 weeks of the year that do not celebrate a particular aspect of the mystery of Christ but are devoted to the mystery of Christ in all its aspects. This period of the Church calendar is called Ordinary Time because the weeks are numbered in order. The liturgical colour for Ordinary Time is green.